Va. House leaders push Webb, Warner on health bill

AP News
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Posted: Dec 17, 2009 11:38 AM

The Republican speaker of Virginia's House of Delegates and its chief budget writer are pressuring Virginia's Democratic senators to oppose the Senate health reform bill.

They're part of a Republican full-court press on Virginia's two moderate senators, Jim Webb and Mark R. Warner, as President Barack Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid seek the 60 votes needed to thwart a GOP filibuster and push the measure to a final Senate vote.

The president and Democratic leaders want a health care measure passed by year's end.

A Dec. 16 letter from Virginia Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Lacey Putney, a conservative Bedford independent, contends the Senate bill would dramatically boost state Medicaid expenses by expanding the number of people eligible.

It cites a poll suggesting the bill is unpopular in Virginia.

"In light of the strong concerns expressed here and the significant opposition amongst Virginians, we respectfully ask that you urge caution amongst your colleagues and oppose the current bill," they wrote.

Neither Webb's office nor Warner's had seen a copy of the letter before one was provided to them by The Associated Press. Both withheld comment pending a review.

Opposition from Republicans and anti-tax groups at all levels has been fierce and vocal all year. Democrats, including Warner, faced angry opponents at town hall-style forums across Virginia during the summer.

As a decisive vote nears, pressure has been particularly intense on Webb, who served as President Reagan's Navy secretary but became a Democrat and unseated Republican Sen. George Allen in 2006.

The state Republican Party organized efforts to deliver what it says are petitions signed by people opposed to the health care bill to Webb's offices in Virginia. The Republican National Committee released an Internet video urging Webb to deny Reid the 60th vote he needs to move the bill to a final vote.

Howell and Putney couched their concerns in the context of the deepest budget crisis in Virginia in modern times resulting from the worse economic decline since the Great Depression. They call the Senate plan a massive shift of federal expenses onto states, or "the ultimate unfunded mandate."

Having already dealt with about $7 billion in budget reductions and facing a projected revenue shortfall of at least $3.6 billion for the two-year budget for 2010-2012 that Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine submits Friday, the state can't handle more federally mandated expenses, the state lawmakers said.

Under the Senate plan, they said, "the General Assembly could be faced with the unenviable choice of raising taxes, cutting essential services or both."

Virginia's costs for Medicaid, the federal-state program that helps meet health care costs for the needy, elderly and disabled, already face large increases, the letter says. But by expanding the pool of people eligible to receive Medicaid benefits, the state's cost share would grow by an additional $920 million between 2017 and 2019, Putney and Howell wrote.