State Senators John Watkins, R-Powhatan, top left, Stephen Martin, R-Chesterfield, top center, and Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, watch the vote on the new president pro tem during the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. Most of the Republican Senators left their seats for the vote.
Democrats are seeking to reshape the power structure of the Virginia Senate after winning two special elections that gave their party narrow control of the upper chamber.
Minutes after the Virginia Senate's newest member —Lynwood Lewis — was sworn in as the 20th Democrat in an evenly divided chamber, Senate Democrats moved swiftly to take control of the chamber.
Democratic Senator Donald McEachin suggested that the existing rules were out of order.
"The courts have repeatedly suggested that past iterations of a legislature have no power to dictate the rules of their successors," McEachin said.
With that, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam said the old rules were no longer in effect. Republican Senator Tommy Norment made a parliamentary inquiry.
"Am I correct in understanding that as the president of the Senate that you are ruling that the rules which were adopted by this body in January of 2012 are in effect not in effect, null and void?" Norment said.
Northam replied in the affirmative.
Norment said it was a misguided ruling, adding that the lieutenant governor was creating a sense of anarchy in the state Senate. Democrats say they're in control now, arguing that they should have control over the committees instead of Republicans. Those committees typically control which legislation makes it to the Senate floor.
In a statement, the Virginia Republican Party minced no words in criticizing Democrats.
"Today's display of abject lawlessness on the part of Sens. Don McEachin and Dick Saslaw was revolting. Not one of these Senate Democrats should be able to speak of the 'Virginia Way' ever again with a straight face or a clear conscience," said party Chairman Pat Mullins.
He also called Democrats "petulant children."
In 2011, there was a similar fight over control of a split Senate. That year Democrats unsuccessfully sued to try and prevent Northam's Republican predecessor from casting deciding votes on committee assignments in the Senate.