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Playing Washington D.C.-style politics in Richmond

Politics in Richmond, the back and forth between the House, the Senate and the Governor, rarely, in fact almost never, involve words like impasse or deadlock. And references to   shutdowns, well, that’s something that happens in dysfunctional Washington D.C. politics, not in Richmond. Or, at least, that’s the way it used to be. Now, thanks to the debate over whether or not to accept federal support to expand Medicaid, the politics of Washington are getting decidedly closer to our beloved state capitol.

By now, at a point well past the end of the 2014 legislative session, the General Assembly should have long since passed its two-year budget. Oh, understandably, they might still be working out some of the kinks here and there, but the business of debating and passing a budget should be done with. But, it’s not. Rather, the lines have been drawn, both sides seem dug in, and at the moment, any compromise solution seems a long ways off.
On one side, there is the Governor and the Democratic-controlled state senate. Both support accepting federal money and expanding Medicaid. The House, however, with an overwhelming GOP majority, opposes this. And that’s what it all comes down to. Unfortunately, the Governor and the Democrats are in the most difficult political position. The House Republican leadership contends that their alternative, which involves deferring a decision on Medicaid until a later special session and passing a budget now, is the best way to go in the interests of the people of Virginia. However, the Democrats understand politics too, and they know all too well that if they pass a budget now and leave a decision on Medicaid until later, the pro-Medicaid forces will lose much of their leverage.
Playing shutdown chicken in Virginia is a dangerous game. People don’t like it. First of all, while the Democrats feel strongly that they have the moral edge in this argument, it’s not clear that the voters are paying that much attention. The voters, if they’re watching the news at all, are more interested in the disappearance of the Malaysian Air 370 or in Russia’s latest land grab, or, if it’s going to snow one more time. They just aren’t tracking the ins and outs of Medicaid financing in Richmond. That’s why, if it comes to a shutdown, the Democrats could well be in the worst position.

The GOP can deliberately argue that they’ll consider Medicaid, but that their first priority is passing the budget. That’s a great sound bite. With so many localities and school systems depending on state money, this argument may resonate far better than the ones in favor of holding up the budget in order to enact expansion of the state’s Medicaid program. Also, the GOP, if it comes to a shutdown, will be in a far better position to blame the Democrats. This might be a heavy burden in the 2014 mid-term Congressional elections, which will be hard fought in Virginia, and later in the 2015 general assembly elections.

The Governor and his cabinet have roamed the state trying to rally support for expanding Medicaid. They make some good arguments. More people are aware of the issue, but when it comes to convincing the Republican members of the House of Delegates, it doesn’t seem like they have made any headway at all. They just haven’t been able to muster the kind of political pressure needed to change enough Republican votes in the House of Delegates. Just like in football, their effort to run with the ball downfield just didn’t work. And that’s where we are right now; we’re stuck. That’s why, as much as I support Medicaid expansion, and have argued strongly for it, maybe it’s time for the Democrats, and I apologize for one more football analogy, to look for an end-game that lets them save face.

—Reach David Kerr at
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