Patrick McSweeney


Can the Republicans Regroup?


Ridden with dissension after the 2004 budget debate, Republican legislators may be licking their self-inflicted wounds for a long time.


There is no way to avoid the conclusion that, even as Republican leaders in the House of Delegates voted against the $1 billion tax increase last Tuesday, they actually helped to secure its passage.


House Speaker William Howell and House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith made one decision after another that facilitated tax bills they publicly proclaimed to oppose. On the very day the package of tax and related measures was approved by the House, Howell sent one of the bills to a House committee likely to report the bill to the floor rather than to a committee likely to kill it. He also had every justification to make a ruling that would have blocked another bill in the package, but chose to bring it to a vote.


If Howell made a deal not to use his office to block the tax package, itís difficult to see why he did so or what he received in return. In fact, he still canít assure his colleagues that the tax fight is over. The Senate is likely to continue ratcheting up the total tax increase as the budget is worked out in conference.

And yet the collapse of the House of Delegates in the showdown over taxes this year was due less to any particular actions either of these two GOP leaders took than to the absence of any consistent strategy.  The leadership vacuum in the House was evident early in the regular session.


Many Republicans are wondering how the House, which the GOP controls by such a large margin, could have been rolled so easily. No one expected this outcome when the regular session began in early January.


It is mystifying that Howell and Griffith resorted to so many different tactics, including a proposal for a referendum on any new taxes, yet never used the most potent weapon in the anti-tax arsenal. They never made a concerted effort to show that curbing government wastefulness and inefficiency could eliminate the need for a massive tax increase.


Both Howell and Griffith now have the worst of all worlds. Seventeen House Republicans publicly defied their leaders on the most controversial issue facing the General Assembly in 2004. The remaining House Republicans are bitter about the outcome of the tax fight. And the Democrats in the chamber have a new lease on life because of their role in putting together the coalition with dissident Republicans that succeeded in winning passage of new taxes.


The House Republicans who supported the $1 billion tax hike will never be comfortable in the House Republican Caucus so long as it is led by men they openly rebelled against. It may not be possible for them to make amends with the majority of House Republicans who fought the tax increase to the end.

Perhaps, the grumbling from the anti-tax House Republicans about the failure of their leaders during the tax fight will subside between now and the beginning of the 2005 session, but thatís hardly a safe bet. Next year is an election year and tensions will be even higher.


Is there any hopeful sign for Republicans? Maybe.

Gov. Mark R. Warner may be more vulnerable than the pundits acknowledge. Voters will be reminded repeatedly that he broke his campaign promise not to raise taxes.


The $1 billion in new taxes will disappear like water poured on sand. Will voters see any significant improvement in state services? If not, the negative effect of higher taxes will register more clearly with them.


The question remains: can Republicans regroup?


-- May 10, 2004




















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