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House speaker maneuvers behind the scenes for weeks to get obscure bill passed

Anita Kumar

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill that would help protect a single Fortune 500 company from asbestos lawsuits -- a proposal that House Speaker William J. Howell has been quietly maneuvering to have his chamber support for weeks.

The powerful Republican leader took the unusual step of pleading his case to his caucus behind closed doors, said several delegates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. Howell also personally visited individual delegates, including Democrats, and encouraged them to back the measure as a "personal favor," according to several sources. And he reshuffled the committee that was considering the bill -- which it approved last week after it was unexpectedly killed in committee two years in a row. Read today's entire story here.

The bill passed an initial vote yesterday, but was defeated unexpectedly Tuesday on a tie vote after some delegates switched their positions and others, who were absent from the earlier vote because of the snowstorm, sided opposed it. Howell, who was presiding over the debate on the floor, looked stunned as it failed on a 49-49 vote. Del. Thomas D. Gear (R-Hampton) did not vote although he was in the chamber.

Under House rules, the measure was able to be reconsidered and was brought back up a couple hours later at the end of yesterday's session. On its final try, it passed 49 to 48.

Three delegates switched their votes and supported the bill -- Dels. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), James Edmunds (R-Halifax) and Joseph P. Johnson Jr. (D-Washington).

Albo said the speaker did not ask him to reconsider but several others did, including House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) and the bill's sponsor, Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott). He said he was not threatened, but rather he was persuaded to back the bill in order to win approval of his own priorities later in the legislative session.

"This bill is not really that big of a deal to me,'' Albo said. "Being a delegate is about building coalitions. I've got other things I need to solve. I need to keep my team together to get some stuff done."

At the top of the list, Albo said, is to make sure House leadership agrees with Gov. Bob McDonnell's decision to oppose a freeze in the adjustment to the school-funding formula that will cost cash-strapped schools in Northern Virginia nearly $140 million.

On the second vote, Gear opposed the bill, but two other delegates failed to vote -- Dels. Algie T. Howell Jr. (D-Norfolk) and Samuel A. Nixon Jr. (R-Chesterfield). Nixon, who is part of the Republican leadership team and voted for the bill in committee, said later that he and Howell were both in the bathroom at the time.

Howell recently completed a term as national chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has been pushing the Crown Cork & Seal bill in state legislatures across the nation since 2006. In most of the 11 states where the bill has passed it has done so in the first year, but this is Howell's third attempt in Virginia.

The bill now heads to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where a similar version of the bill died last year. Its fate there is uncertain.

Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax) said she removed the bill from consideration last year after she was approached by a lobbyist for another company, Owens Illinois, that argues it would pay more in asbestos claims if Crown Cork was no longer held liable, and learned for the first time that other companies are in similar situations. "I found out the rest of the story,'' she said.

But Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester), whose district includes Crown Cork's Winchester plant, supports the bill. "I am generally supportive of anything, that in this economy, will keep them a viable company."

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who initially supported the bill, also changed his mind last year, is being heavily and hasn't made up his mind about what to do. "I want to hear some more,'' he said.

Stacey Johnson, a McDonnell spokeswoman, said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Jim Cheng is revieving the bill. McDonnell's Senior Adviser for Policy Eric Finkbeiner was a lobbyist for Crown Cork & Seal up until he left to join the administration.

By Anita Kumar  |  February 10, 2010; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar , General Assembly 2010 , House of Delegates , Robert F. McDonnell , State Senate  
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I just wanted to thank the reporter for writing this story. Corporate shenanigans are so often ignored or applauded, it's good to know someone is still able to inform the citizens.

Posted by: tiddas | February 10, 2010 11:37 PM | Report abuse

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