Should VA Senate Democrats Stage First-Ever Filibuster or Walkout Over “Personhood?”


    by Paul Goldman

    As a legal matter, what is called the “personhood” bill seems to have any number of problems, constitutional and otherwise. But leaving those aside for another day, let’s address politics, namely the 2013 Governor’s race.

    Presumably, the “personhood” bill can make it to the Senate floor one way or another, since it has Senator Colgan as a sponsor. Thus, as I understand the rules, even if it didn’t get out of committee, it would still be possible for 21 Senators to join together on the floor of the body and pass a motion to “discharge” the measure from said committee.

    Would all 20 Republicans go along? Let’s assume they would.

    In terms of passing the body, it would only take 20 Senators to vote YEA. Let’s assume the votes are there to a tie would be broken in the affirmative by LG Bolling since if he voted NAY, then he would lose any chance of winning the 2013 GOP GUV primary.

    Let’s assume the bill is on the floor and would pass. What should Senate Democrats do about this situation?

    If one side doesn’t have the votes to kill a measure, they seemingly have two options.

    First, would be to deny the body a quorum. It takes 21 Senators present at the quorum call.

    Mathematically therefore, the Senate Democrats could refuse, en masse, to provide the quorum for the Senate to be in Session to vote on the “personhood” bill.

    But without Colgan, it doesn’t work, since it is hard to believe any Republicans would join.

    Deductively then, we get to option #2, or more accurately the only one left short of people coming to their political senses:



    Technically, there is no such thing as a filibuster in Virginia as the parliamentary maneuver is viewed in folklore in terms of the US Senate. In common parlance, a filibuster is an effort by one or more Senators to talk a bill to death while their colleagues refuse to cut off the debate by invoking closure, a motion that ends the debate and forces a vote. Prior 1917, there was no such thing as a cloture motion in the US Senate, any Senator could just talk and talk on any subject whether germane to the bill or not.

    No one could stop him, so in my context, it wasn’t a filibuster in classic parlance.

    But President Wilson  feared this situation would allow the anti-war folks in the Senate to prevent a motion to declare war on Germany from  ever reaching a vote. So they came up with the 2/3 cloture rule: for the first time, the body could shut off debate despite its tradition of unlimited yakking.

    Today, the cloture rule takes a 3/5 vote of the body.


    20 Senators can force the debate to be shut off with the help of a friendly LG.


    As I understand the rules of the VA Senate, the Senator with the floor can keep it for as long as he or she wants, provided they speak to the bill, not read the phone book or what can be done in the U.S. Senate.

    This is to say: Should the “personhood” bill get to the floor, the tradition is for the LG to allow those who want to speak on yak away, with germane stuff, with the person “managing” the bill getting the first and last words.

    In theory, the LG could rule that debate has gone long enough, or call a vote on the bill without allowing any debate: under the procedures adopted, his ruling would stand as long as he keeps his GOP forces with him. But this would destroy the atmosphere in the body, and would have unintended consequences.

    SO: Bolling Alone is going to allow debate as normal. Which means at some point a Senate Democrat with real guts is going to get a chance to hold the floor.


    Assume Senator Goldilocks for example, this way we can protect all the real ones.

    Goldilocks starts to talk about the bill, starting with whatever legal or scientific or whatever stuff germane to the measure. He yaks and yaks and yaks, droning on and on. When he needs to get some health food, he cedes the floor to Senator Lowkell, known for his/her bluesy talk. Lowkell keeps rapping and rapping until Goldilocks comes back to his desk and asks for the floor.

    As the rules were explained to me, as long as the person holding the floor keeps talking, and doesn’t fall into the GOP trap of taking a question thus giving up the floor, this VA STYLE FILIBUSTER can go on and on.

    At some point, enough Senators will go home and the quorum will be gone.

    Here is gets tricky, but it seems to me that the person with the floor keeps it when the Senate reconvenes.

    BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY: The headlines around the state the next day – and of course immediately on the WEB – will be how the Democrats tried the first ever FILIBUSTER to kill the “personhood” bill, thus forcing a statewide debate fueled by national coverage which will follow, I would expect such reporters to be in the Senate gallery the next day.

    As a practical matter, this brave Democrat and posse will have to let the Senate vote on the measure since there is other business unless some deal is reached with Bolling Alone. This is different than in US Senate, where they put a measure aside – kill it really – after failing to invoke cloture so they can get on to other….attempts to invoke cloture on something else!

    BUT: Even if the Senate ultimately gets to vote on it, the state publicity for a several day period will focus as nothing else can the public’s attention on the measure.

    2013: It seems to me this is all upside for Democrats in 2013. Moreover, right now, we can’t field a team of three as in statewide ticket.

    Surely one or more Senators can handle the situation to emerge as a more credible statewide figure.

    BOTTOM 2013 LINE:

    The risk vs. reward equation works here for Democrats. It will be a highly charged situation so it isn’t for amateurs. Moreover, the attendant coverage around the state is still the best way to get some in the GOP to realize it might be best to step back from the brink.

    They could lay the bill aside for more study, or choose any number of ways to keep it from passing without being seen as killing it. Surely this what Governor McDonnell should want.

    Delegate Bob Marshall shouldn’t mind either, as it keeps the issue alive for his Senate challenge to George Allen.


    Be the first on your block to order our special FILIBUSTER KIT.

    2013 or bust I say.  


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