WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates announced Friday that it would hold hearings on the sexual assault claims against Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax, inviting Mr. Fairfax and his two accusers to publicly testify about one of the scandals that has upended the state’s government.
Speaking on the House floor a day before the end of Virginia’s annual legislative session, Delegate Robert B. Bell, the chairman of the Courts of Justice Committee, said the Legislature had “a duty to investigate” the allegations made by Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson against Mr. Fairfax, a Democrat. Mr. Fairfax emphatically denies that he assaulted either woman.
Mr. Bell did not say when the committee would hold the hearing, and advisers to House Speaker Kirk Cox indicated that for now they wanted only to create a forum for all parties to be heard and were not yet pursuing impeachment.
The House Democratic caucus, which like most of Virginia’s elected leadership has called for Mr. Fairfax’s resignation, criticized Mr. Bell for not offering details about the hearings and accused Republicans of seeking political gains from the claims against Mr. Fairfax.
“The Speaker and House Republicans are attempting to politicize these serious, criminal allegations,” said Kathryn Gilley, a spokeswoman for the caucus. “All parties involved deserve better.”
But less than two hours after Mr. Bell’s announcement, it became clear that the crisis enveloping Virginia Democrats may only deepen: Ms. Watson’s lawyer said her client would testify — and suggested she may bring other parties to the State Capitol for what would most likely be a high-profile forum.
“It is our understanding that the hearing will be public and televised and that Ms. Watson, Dr. Tyson and Lieutenant Governor Fairfax will all testify under oath and be subject to the same rules and requirements, including our right to present witnesses and corroborators,” said Nancy Erika Smith, the lawyer.
In a statement, Mr. Fairfax’s spokeswoman did not indicate whether he would testify but accused Republicans of “engaging in political theater” and said they were seeking partisan gain from the accusations.
“House Republicans want to pursue this historically unprecedented course of action because the accused is a popularly elected Democrat,” said Lauren Burke, Mr. Fairfax’s spokeswoman.
The sexual assault claims, Ms. Burke said, should be taken up by “law enforcement professionals.”
House Republicans framed their decision to move forward with the hearings as a response to the requests of the two accusers, who have been urging the Legislature to investigate and have repeatedly stated their willingness to testify. But the inquiry could also make the election-year quandary Virginia Democrats find themselves in even more painful.
The specter of public hearings into the allegations against Mr. Fairfax, who is black, would not only revive a scandal that had started to quiet, it would also serve as a reminder that Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, who are white, have refused to resign after admitting they wore blackface in their youth. All 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly are on the ballot in November and Republicans are clinging to narrow majorities in both chambers.
House Republicans and Democrats had met earlier in the week to discuss crafting a bipartisan response, but by Thursday were criticizing one another over how to deal with the claims against Mr. Fairfax.
The Republicans had sought to create a 10-person investigative panel, equally divided between parties, to examine Ms. Watson’s claim that Mr. Fairfax raped her in 2000, when they were Duke University students, and Dr. Tyson’s accusation that he sexually assaulted her during the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.
But Democrats were uneasy about creating a forum they said would politicize the accusations and indicated they would prefer that law enforcement handle the matter.
That has been the posture of the party’s House caucus since black lawmakers objected to an effort earlier this month by a white Democrat to introduce articles of impeachment against Mr. Fairfax after he refused to resign following the second accusation.
Some Democratic lawmakers grumbled privately that, once the party backed away from the impeachment inquiry, it would be only a matter of time before Republicans stepped forward to hold hearings.
But after Mr. Bell spoke, one black lawmaker stood up on the floor and said her colleagues should consider what would, and would not, come from convening a legislative inquiry.
“What happens after the hearings?” Delegate Lashrecse Aird asked. “We can offer no conviction, we can offer no real action, and we would have taken all parties involved through a political exercise that in the end can actually cause more harm than good, and could have a chilling effect for others seeking justice.”
If Mr. Fairfax is ultimately convicted, Ms. Aird continued, “You won’t need to hold hearings, form a committee or call for impeachment because the black women in this body would be the very first of who would be filing articles of impeachment.”
If Mr. Fairfax resigns, there would most likely be a special election to replace him this fall. But he has hired a legal team, called for the F.B.I. to investigate the claims and steadfastly refused to quit.
Polls this week showed that Virginia voters are divided along racial lines about whether the lieutenant governor should quit, with a large plurality of African-Americans indicating they think he should remain in office and nearly as many whites believing he should step down.