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Democratic Senator Resigns, Shifting Balance in Virginia Budget Dispute

Democratic State Senator Phillip Puckett will resign June 9, effective immediately, giving control of the evenly divided Senate chamber, at least temporarily, to the GOP and threatening Democrats' hopes to expand the state’s Medicaid program. Republicans reportedly have offered Puckett a spot on the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission staff and given assurances that his daughter will be confirmed as a juvenile circuit court judge.

Governor Terry McAuliffe will call a special election to replace Puckett, but it will not come soon enough to affect the outcome of the budget standoff. Democratic Senate Caucus Chair Don McEachin of Henrico says he does not believe a budget will pass without some form of Medicaid expansion. Jeff Ryer, a senior advisor to the Republican Senate caucus says “Our first priority would be to figure out a way to jump start the process. That doesn’t mean there’ll be an immediate resolution on Medicaid expansion or the budget, but it would at least get things moving.

“If we were to wait until the 24th when all the Senate Democratic budget conferees returned from vacation, there would not be enough time to enact a budget by July 1st. The Governor is allotted seven days to introduce amendments, so the real deadline for General Assembly action is much sooner,” Ryer says. There is a likely mechanism the Republicans could use to call the Senate back should the Democratic Chairman of Senate Rules, John Edwards choose not to. In Section 2 of the Senate rules, nine senators can call the chamber back into session, though the method has never been used.

Political analyst Bob Holsworth points out that Senator Puckett is one of the last rural Democrats in the General Assembly, and keeping his seat from the GOP could be a significant challenge. But he says the political consequences could be far-reaching.

Senate Republicans are expected to call the chamber back to the Capitol sometime later this week.