[UPDATE – 09/19/14: I retract the portion of this story that deals with Medicaid expansion. Subsequent events suggest the September reconvening of the special session was undertaken to provide the Governor an act of appropriation, not to make it politically more difficult for him to offer an aggressive Medicaid expansion plan. I apologize for the error. More details here.]
Republican leaders in the General Assembly announced this afternoon that the House and Senate will both convene in late September to consider Medicaid expansion. In a joint press release, Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City County) had this to say:
Throughout Governor McAuliffe’s unnecessary budget impasse, I and other House leaders consistently expressed our commitment to a full and fair debate on the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act,” Speaker Howell noted. “We intend to honor that commitment by reconvening in September of this year.”
“Agreeing to hold a session on this issue was essential to resolving the budget standoff,” Senator Norment remarked. “Although I remain to be persuaded that Medicaid expansion would be the right financial decision for Virginia, any decision to enact a change this major would require the General Assembly’s approval.”
There are some key political advantages to this strategy.
When Governor McAuliffe issued his attempted line-item veto of budget language prohibiting any “appropriation or expenditure” to expand Medicaid (the handsomely-named Stanley Amendment), he nonetheless directed his Health Secretary Bill Hazel to devise an administrative plan to close the so-called “coverage gap” by September 1. By setting the legislative debate on Medicaid to begin the week of September 22, Norment and Howell have increased the political cost to Gov. McAuliffe should he decide to act on that plan. The thinking here is that the Governor would look entirely unreasonable if he were to act when the General Assembly has indicated willingness to take up the issue in a fair and open debate, this time without holding the budget hostage.
Second, this keeps the current special session alive until at least September, meaning the General Assembly retains maximum control over the judicial appointment process. The current session is not being adjourned, only recessed. As long as the General Assembly remains in session, the Governor cannot appoint judges. Extending the session means judicial appointments can wait until Senate Republicans have an absolute majority with the expected August election of a new Senator, Ben Chafin, to replace the resigned Phil Puckett.
Finally, a session devoted to debating Obamacare has the salutary effect of helping keep the spotlight on Mark Warner’s record supporting the president’s healthcare boondoggle—just as the Gillespie/Warner contest heats up this fall. This only works, of course, to the extent Republicans remain united in opposing entrenchment of Warner’s mistake. Thus, GOP legislators will have the added pressure of not wanting to undermine our Senate nominee by caving on the disastrous policy that we need to hang around Mark Warner’s neck.
For these reasons, today’s move by Norment and Howell is very positive. More importantly, though, Virginia’s taxpayers are entitled to a free, open, and honest debate about Medicaid expansion, in contrast to the Medicaid mess created in 2013 to facilitate passage of Gov. McDonnell’s tax hike and transportation spending scheme. We’re looking forward to some long overdue transparency this time.
Will we see a return among some Republicans of the “reform and then expand” mantra that has been dormant since January? Perhaps. But now we can debate it without the MIRC and budget language shenanigans that so clouded the debate in the run up to last month’s showdown.