RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia’s Senate Democrats have voted down about 20 of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s priorities so far in this year’s General Assembly session, but the newly inaugurated Republican remains optimistic about the entirety of his hefty agenda.
Youngkin scored a major victory this week with bipartisan legislation to end school mask requirements, and in an interview with The Associated Press, he emphasized that since bills on education, tax cuts and labor law cleared the GOP-controlled House by a legislative midpoint deadline, there's still time to find compromises.
“I think we’ve got a ton of momentum across our agenda,” he said.
A political newcomer and former private equity executive who took office just over a month ago, Youngkin has reached out to lawmakers from both parties through phone calls, dinners, receptions and other meetings while rolling out a highly specific legislative agenda that encompassed his key campaign promises.
Youngkin scored one of his biggest wins thus far when a few Senate Democrats joined Republicans to allow students to opt out of school mask mandates beginning March 1. The legislation gathered momentum after Youngkin’s effort to end the mandates by executive order became bogged down in legal challenges.
The measure reached final passage Wednesday, at a time when cases of COVID-19 are declining but the federal government continues to recommend universal masking in schools.
“We’ve been working on this for a year and empowering parents to make decisions for their children. And this is a big win for Virginia,” said Youngkin, whose victory has been widely attributed to his ability to harness parental frustration over curriculums and school closures.
The Senate has looked less favorably upon other key pieces of his agenda, including an effort to root out what Republicans have labeled critical race theory from public schools. A Senate committee killed legislation that would have codified a ban on “inherently divisive concepts” that portray one race, sex or religious faith as inherently superior, or teach that an individual is inherently racist as a result of his skin color.
Youngkin issued an executive order directing the Department of Education to examine critical race theory at an administrative level, and a House version of the CRT legislation is still alive. But it faces poor prospects upon its return to the Senate, where Democratic leaders indicated they aren't much interested in reconsidering any of the governor's priorities that they've already defeated this session.
Sen. Louise Lucas, who chairs the education committee that's voted down many of Youngkin's schools bills and often throws jabs at the governor on Twitter, told AP: “We’re going to do the same thing when the bills come up from the House. That’s par for the course.”
“They’re going to get voted down over here," Caucus Chair Chair Mamie Locke agreed.
In a news release Tuesday, the Senate highlighted its defeats of Youngkin priorities, including an effort to create more charter schools. But the chamber has passed compromise legislation on a related concept — a proposal by Youngkin for “lab schools” in which colleges and universities partner with K-12 school systems.
The chamber also went along with requiring schools to develop plans to notify parents if students are assigned sexually explicit materials. Similar legislation has also passed the House.
On other topics, the Senate rejected legislation that would have required law enforcement officers to be deployed at every school.
Another Youngkin priority — ending collective bargaining for certain public sector workers — was defeated by one committee, while another defeated a 20-week abortion ban. That measure was not on the governor's official list of priorities, but GOP Sen. Amanda Chase — its sponsor — said the administration told her Youngkin would sign it if passed.
Youngkin also wants a broad array of tax cuts he says will benefit working people. Senators have so far agreed on a bipartisan basis to a more limited set, including a partial repeal of the sales tax on groceries. A committee also opted not to advance his proposal to double the standard deduction, instead sending it to be further studied.
Youngkin also appears to have lost a fight with the Senate to get Andrew Wheeler, a former Trump administration U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, confirmed to a Cabinet post.
Democrats asked Youngkin to move on after the chamber rejected Wheeler, whose appointment provoked a backlash from environmental groups and former EPA employees, on a party-line vote. Fallout, meanwhile, has spread to other appointments.
Youngkin didn't name names, but said in the interview that some Democrats told him they can't vote for Wheeler for political reasons, even though he's qualified.
“This political divide where people feel like they can't do what’s right is why I think I was elected,” Youngkin said.
The governor, who could ask Wheeler to serve in his administration in a different role that doesn't require legislative approval, said he remains hopeful the Senate will reconsider.
The regular session of Virginia's part-time legislature runs through March 12 this year. Members will reconvene in April to consider any amendments Youngkin proposes.
With the time that remains, Youngkin — who also wields the power of the veto pen — said his administration would sit down with House and Senate leadership to “see what we can get done together.”
“This legislative process is one that I find incredibly encouraging," he said. ”I’m inspired by it."
Locke, who has served in the Senate since 2004, laughed as she welcomed the governor's sunny outlook.
“I’m glad he’s optimistic," she said.
Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report from Richmond.