A Virginia Democratic senator has single-handedly given Republicans the upper hand in the ugly fight about whether to expand Medicaid under Obamacare as a deadline looms to fund the government.
The fiscal year ends on June 30, at which point Virginia must enact a budget or face an unprecedented government shutdown that threatens the paychecks of over 100,000 residents.
Republicans have a whopping 68-32 advantage in the House and they have every intention of blocking Medicaid expansion for the 400,000 low-income Virginians who would be covered, almost entirely by federal dollars.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a supporter of expansion, has been locked in a standoff with Republicans over whether to accept the generous federal offer, which conservative activists are dead set against. His biggest weapon has been the Senate — which had a 20-20 split but was controlled by Democrats, with Lt. Ralph Northam (D) as the tie-breaking vote.
Until this week.
On Monday, Sen. Phillip Puckett (D) resigned abruptly, flipping the majority to the GOP by a 20-19 margin. The Washington Post reported Sunday that his decision to step down would get him a job with the GOP-led tobacco commission and that his daughter would be approved for a judgeship. But in a twist, the news about Puckett’s intentions led to a firestorm of controversy that reportedly caused him to withdraw his name from consideration and motivated the commission to cancel its meeting this week to discuss the possibility of hiring him.
Medicaid expansion was by no means certain even if the Senate was in Democratic hands. But it is much tougher with the chamber in Republican hands. The newly Republican Senate is expected to convene on Thursday and bring up the House-approved budget that omits Medicaid expansion. The GOP can send that budget to McAuliffe’s desk and dare him to veto it.
“Republicans will likely bring up the House budget bill and even the three Senate Republicans who support Medicaid expansion are likely to support the Republican budget,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia and a close observer of Virginia politics. “So it puts Gov. McAuliffe in a bit of a bind. He could veto it but it’ll be easier [for Republicans] to say he’s holding up the state budget that way.”
McAuliffe said he’s “deeply disappointed” by Puckett’s resignation but his office wouldn’t speculate on whether he’d veto a budget without Medicaid expansion. Democrats acknowledge they now have a tougher fight on their hands. “It definitely makes it harder” to expand Medicaid, House Minority Leader David Toscano (D) told TPM on Monday. “It doesn’t make it impossible.”
How is it still possible?
Democrats are clinging to a glimmer of hope that the three Senate Republicans — Emmett Hanger, Walter Stosch and John Watkins — who have supported Medicaid expansion will stand with them. But when push comes to shove they’re not expected to vote against their own party’s budget in a standoff.
There is little hope that the Senate will flip back to Democrats in the special election for Puckett’s successor. “Puckett’s district is very Republican – [Mitt] Romney got two-thirds of the vote there – so it’s a safe bet that a Republican will replace him when the vacancy is filled,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Daniel Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond, said the deck was already stacked against Democrats before Puckett resigned.
“I think Medicaid expansion was going to be difficult in any case,” he said. “The
default position in a divided party government when the parties are opposed in the status quo. Puckett’s departure might speed up the budget process, but it is not clear to me that it affected the outcome of Medicaid expansion; the Governor’s challenge is still in the House.”