Hardball: Backroom Deal Hands GOP Virginia Senate Majority

Posted: Jun 09, 2014 1:12 PM
Hardball: Backroom Deal Hands GOP Virginia Senate Majority

Virginia politics have gotten unusually shady recently. The last governor is under indictment, the current governor founded a company that's been dogged by federal investigations into some nasty allegations, and now a suspect-looking maneuver in Richmond has given Republicans a slim majority in the state Senate. The Washington Post reports:

Republicans appear to have outmaneuvered Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state budget standoff by persuading a Democratic senator to resign his seat, at least temporarily giving the GOP control of the chamber and possibly dooming the governor’s push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) will announce his resignation Monday, effective immediately, paving the way to appoint his daughter to a judgeship and Puckett to the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission, three people familiar with the plan said Sunday. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. The news prompted outrage among Democrats — and accusations that Republicans were trying to buy the Senate with job offers in order to thwart McAuliffe’s proposal to expand health coverage to 400,000 low-income Virginians. Puckett, a senator since 1998, did not respond to calls seeking comment. Other Republicans denied that Puckett was offered the jobs in exchange for his resignation.

Sure. The quid pro quo isn't subtle, perfunctory denials notwithstanding. Puckett's seat is in a heavily-Republican district, by the way, so Democrats will struggle to retain it in a special election. Unseemly as it appears, this sort of gambit is hardly unprecedented, nor is it exclusive to one party. The White House offered Max Baucus a cushy and prestigious incentive to parachute out of his Senate seat in Montana, which Democrats feared he would lose in 2014 (the GOP still stands to pick up that seat). Team Obama also dangled a "high-ranking" Navy job in front of Joe Sestak to try to persuade him to end his 2010 primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter, who had switched parties a year earlier. Sestak refused, beat Specter, then lost to Republican Pat Toomey in the general. All of which is to say that Democrats often play for keeps, and conservatives frequently demand that Republicans answer in kind; they've gotten their wish here.

By way of background, Gov. Terry McAuliffe's stubbornness on Obamacare -- an issue that nearly sank him last November -- has precipitated a weeks-long budget impasse. McAuliffe insists that any budget he signs must expand Medicaid under the new law. Republicans oppose the expansion. The politics of the issue are complicated, as three moderate GOP Senators support McAuliffe's Medicaid plan, while a number of Virginia Senate Democrats aren't thrilled about the prospect of a government shutdown over the issue. McAuliffe used the federal shutdown to hammer his Republican opponent during the 2013 campaign, prompting the counter-charge that McAuliffe was already threatening a state-level shutdown over Obamacare. Left-leaning Politifact ranked that allegation 'false' at the time, but its prescience has now been vindicated. McAuliffe's actions are pushing Virginia to the brink of a government shutdown, all because he isn't getting his way on a costly government-enlargement scheme. It's important to understand that the newly-minted Republican Senate majority doesn't alter the base calculus of the showdown at all; anti-Obamacare Republicans control the Virginia House of Delegates by an astounding 68-32 margin. McAuliffe's Medicaid expansion endeavor was always going to be dead on arrival in the lower chamber. What this weekend's development means, however, is Republicans will likely have the votes to pass a "clean" budget -- with the Medicaid provisions stripped away -- out of both houses of the legislature:

Puckett’s unexpected departure will give the GOP a 20-to-19 majority in the Senate at a time when McAuliffe was counting on Senate support for his Medicaid plan. The GOP-dominated House is firmly opposed, and the disagreement has led to a budget standoff that could trigger a government shutdown if it is not resolved before the start of the new fiscal year, July 1...Puckett’s exit does not immediately sink McAuliffe’s chances in the Senate because three moderate Republicans in that chamber support expansion. But some of McAuliffe’s Senate allies have recently signaled their discomfort with the idea of letting the Medicaid push trigger a government shutdown. Once Puckett resigns, Senate Republicans are expected to take advantage of their newfound majority by calling members back to Richmond — something that nine members of the Senate can make happen. The legislature has been in a special session for months but has not been meeting regularly. With the Senate back in Richmond, the chamber’s new Republican majority could pass a budget without Medicaid expansion.

McAuliffe was counting on wielding a "bipartisan Senate budget" that included the Obamacare elements as a sledgehammer again House Republicans. Now he's the odd man out and will have to decide whether he's willing to use his veto pen and force a shutdown. The politics of that move would probably...not end well for McAuliffe or his party:

A majority of Virginians oppose using federal Medicaid funds to expand health coverage, according to a new poll that finds public opinion has rapidly soured on Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s top priority. The Wason Center at Christopher Newport University poll found that 53 percent of the state’s voters oppose enrolling more Virginians in the federal-state health program for the poor, a sharp reversal from February, when the center found that 56 percent backed expansion...Democrats are losing the debate on expanding Medicaid in Virginia,” Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center, said in a written statement. “This is mostly because they are not convincing Independents that it’s a good idea. But even in the usually friendly territory of Northern Virginia, the debate is not going their way.” Support for expansion is highest in liberal-leaning Northern Virginia, but even there, it leads opposition by only 2 percentage points — 49 percent to 47 percent.

Forbes' Josh Archambault broke down those polling results in great detail last month. Virginia Democrats are reacting to Republicans' power play with predictable fury, denouncing "bullying," and accusing the GOP of callously denying medical care to 400,000 lower-income residents. This ignores the fact that Medicaid is a failed program, which was brutally demonstrated by a years-long, gold-plated study out of Oregon. It costs taxpayers exorbitant amounts of money and does not produce better health outcomes for its recipients, compared with their uninsured counterparts. Providing substandard Medicaid coverage to more people also does not cut down on emergency room visits, another argument often advanced in its defense. Americans on Medicaid also struggle to find primary care doctors, as many physicians do not accept new Medicaid patients, due to uncompetitive federal reimbursement rates. Republicans should argue that it's actually uncaring to prop up (let alone try to expand) a broken, unsustainable entitlement program that's failing America's poor. Healthcare wonk Avik Roy has written an entire book detailing how Medicaid hurts the people it's ostensibly designed to protect.