RICHMOND, Virginia — The Virginia Senate passed its amended version of the $4.3 billion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation bill late Wednesday evening, after hours of debate on amendments. Although some Republican amendments, including a key law enforcement bonus proposal, were incorporated into the spending bill, many were not. Rejected amendments included a sweeping election integrity amendment and an anti-Critical Race Theory amendment. The final vote on passing the bill was 22-18. Many Republicans said that while they supported some elements of the bill, they disapproved of the process Democrats used, including a vote Wednesday evening to limit debate on each amendment to just three minutes.
Right before the vote to pass the budget, the Senate GOP caucus went into conference. When the senators returned, Minority Leader Thomas Norment, Jr. (R-James City) hinted that many of his caucus would vote against the bill. He said, “It is not so much about the substantive provisions of the budget that we have amended. Rather I believe that the vote you are about to see is going to be a reflection of the frustration and the indignation of the entire process.”
“We’ve had this budget since Friday, I believe. So that’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and today’s Wednesday. So that’s five days that the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia have had to look at this budget. There has been no meaningful committee hearings. There’ve been no subcommittee meetings. There have been no public hearings,” Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) said.
“I think we’re looking at a budget, that had it been a collaborative effort, would reflect many of the same issues that are in this budget now,” Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico.) “I can tell you, absolutely, having consistently supported the budgets, I’m not going to support this and I’m not supporting it because of the process.”
Democrats noted that many of the provisions in the budget were things that Republicans had pushed for in the past. Senate Finance Committee Chair Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) said they had asked each senator to send in their funding priorities and only four Republicans and 16 Democrats sent in priorities.
“I would point out to those on the other side who are considering voting against [the bill], you are voting against broadband for your constituents,” Howell said. “You’re voting against school infrastructure improvements for the children in your district. You’re voting against funding for mental health for those who desperately need it. You’re voting against public safety improvements. You’re voting against unemployment assistance. And you’re voting against safe water.”
Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) was the only Republican who voted for the bill.
“There were a number of legislators last night that wanted to express their displeasure with basically the process and some of what was going on,” Hanger told The Virginia Star on Thursday.
He said, “I had signaled my intention when we first entertained the bill, when it first reported out of the Senate Finance Committee that there was a lot of good in there, that I wanted to work on tweaking it a bit, and if the Senate leadership was agreeable to that in the Finance Committee, then I would be able to support it. So that’s what happened. We got significant changes made during the process, so I felt very comfortable in voting for it, not that I had agreed with everything in it, but that we had opened up the process. It wasn’t just ramming it through as it came to us.”
When asked about the caucus meeting right before the vote, Hanger said he couldn’t speak specifically, but generally, he said there is “lots of peer pressure” to vote with the caucus for Democrats and Republicans, although there are no binding group votes.
“I have a history of being somewhat independent in that respect. I’m a Republican, but I represent a constituency,” he said.
The House passed an unamended version of the budget bill earlier on Wednesday in a 71-25 vote, with 19 Republicans voting in favor of it. On Thursday, both chambers insisted on their own versions of the bill, so each chamber will appoint members to participate in a joint conference committee between the House and the Senate. The members will hammer out a compromise and bring it back to their chambers for approval.