RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate appears to have enough votes to break through years of GOP intransigence and expand Medicaid to 400,000 low-income residents as part of a budget vote planned for Wednesday.
Supporters consider expansion a moral and economic no-brainer, since the federal government is offering to pay 90 percent of the cost. Opponents, fearful that Washington will renege on the funding and stick Virginia with the whole $2 billion-a-year tab, call it financially irresponsible.
After wrestling with that question for the past four years, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a spending plan in February with expansion. And supporters say they have the votes they need to do the same when the full Senate meets Wednesday.
But first, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. made an unsuccessful last-ditch effort Tuesday to try to block Medicaid expansion for yet another year.
Norment (R-James City) co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which had to vote Tuesday to send a budget bill to the full Senate for consideration.
The committee, which is controlled by Republicans who are opposed to Medicaid expansion, cast votes on two different budget plans Tuesday. The first, which would have expanded Medicaid, was rejected. The second budget, which did not include Medicaid, was approved.
Norment, a steadfast opponent, knew that if the budget without Medicaid expansion moved to the Senate floor, supporters could offer a Medicaid amendment that would win enough votes for passage. All 19 Democrats and two Republicans — Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta) and Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach) — are expected to vote for it.
So Norment, regarded as a master parliamentarian, did a curious thing. He asked for a repeat vote on the first budget — the one with Medicaid expansion.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax County) was suspicious. There are rules against reviving measures that have already been defeated twice. It seemed that Norment was trying to get the committee to reject the budget with Medicaid expansion a second time, so that it could not be brought to the full Senate.
“If you defeat these again,” Saslaw said, “we’re not going to run into a situation where it was twice rejected and, therefore, can’t be considered on the floor?”
Norment wasn’t saying.
Norment and Hanger are co-chairmen of the Finance Committee who take turns presiding over meetings. On Tuesday, Hanger happened to be wielding the gavel, and he seemed momentarily flummoxed by Norment’s move.
“I’m thinking about this in terms of the parliamentary maneuver,” Hanger said.
And then he acted.
“Senator Norment, I rule your attempt out of order,” Hanger said. “Meeting’s adjourned.”
Hanger brought down the gavel, and it was all over.
Norment, who looked stunned, left the meeting room.
“I knew exactly where he was headed,” said Saslaw, a veteran legislator. “I didn’t just arrive here from Mars.”
Under the Affordable Care Act championed by President Barack Obama, Washington allowed states to open their Medicaid rolls to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $16,643 for an individual. The federal government pledged to pay at least 90 percent of the cost, which in Virginia would amount to about $2 billion a year.
Thirty-one states, including Maryland, and the District accepted the offer. But Virginia, which has one of the nation’s most frugal Medicaid programs, refused. Republicans controlling the House and the Senate said they feared that the federal government would withdraw its support and leave the state picking up the cost.
In a surprising about-face, the House supported expansion this year after Republicans nearly lost control of the chamber after the November elections.
But the Senate, which did not face voters last year, remained opposed during the 60-day regular session that concluded March 10.
The impasse prevented the legislature from passing a budget plan, so Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called it into a special budget session. And in recent weeks, opposition in the Senate has weakened.
Hanger has supported expansion for years but initially objected to some of the specifics of the House plan. He has since worked out a compromise with House Appropriations Committee Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk). Wagner also came out in favor of expansion — enough support in the full Senate to approve Medicaid expansion by a 21-to-19 tally.