Budget Deal Wasn’t Easy
Obenshain Says GOP Needed ‘Robust’ Talks
HARRISONBURG — When there’s already been three months of waiting on a state budget, what’s another few hours going to hurt?
But as Thursday night crept toward Friday, every minute of debate among Senate Republicans seemed to signal the urgency of the situation: They brought lawmakers in to pass a budget, and if they couldn’t do it then, it was worth wondering if they would ever.
“It was truly extraordinary. We were seriously deadlocked and seriously determined,” Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said. “It was a tense couple of hours. ... It’s no secret there’s some differences of opinion in our caucus about Medicaid expansion. We had a robust discussion about how we were going to deal with that.
“We’ve been sitting on our collective hands for 90 days and we brought 140 members of the General Assembly to Richmond to do one thing, and that was to pass a budget.”
After much debate, the Senate passed a previously adopted budget from the House of Delegates, adding an amendment that guards against Medicaid expansion.
The House then quickly approved the two-year, $96 billion plan with the Medicaid change, putting it in the hands of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to sign, amend or veto.
“I don’t expect he’s just going to sign it,” said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.
An expansion proponent, the governor told reporters Friday he has not decided what he’ll do.
He has seven days to act once he’s formally presented the budget next week.
Lawmakers had gone without a budget since the regular session ended March 8 and faced a June 30 deadline, a day before the new fiscal year starts.
All along, the Senate-House divide was over expanding Medicaid, the federal health care program that serves the working poor, disabled and others.
The divided Senate had preferred a private option expansion plan, with Democrats needing the support of Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, and two other Republicans to pass it.
The GOP-controlled House’s budget excluded growing the program.
When a Democratic senator resigned earlier this week, Republicans took over the majority in the Senate and immediately called for a meeting Thursday to act on the House budget.
Hanger sided with his party, but only to pass a plan and avoid a government shutdown. He proposed a separate bill dealing with private-option Medicaid expansion that’s still on the Senate table.
Yet even with that separate bill, the House threatened to “kill” the budget, Hanger said.
Delegates were concerned that expansion could still occur, putting their political careers on the line and at risk of having the same fate as U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Hanger said.
Cantor unexpectedly lost in a GOP primary Tuesday to a little-known candidate who attacked his conservative credentials.
“They felt something additional needed to be in there [against Medicaid],” Hanger said.
That led to a Senate amendment that requires General Assembly action before funds can be appropriated for Medicaid expansion, a move that prevents the governor from taking unilateral action to expand.
McAuliffe also said Cantor’s surprise loss to a tea party-backed candidate has emboldened conservative lawmakers.
“They got supersensitive to some blogging that was going on,” Hanger said. “Some of their members and tea party members had stirred it up that they were being hoodwinked. ... They were doing exactly what they had asked us not to, and that was injecting the Medicaid debate into the budget.”
Gilbert said tying Cantor’s loss to the state budget situation was “belittling” to how the House felt.
“It’s drastically overstating to attribute [the House’s opinion] to some inherent fear of consequences in the wake of the Cantor loss,” he said. “Since we’ve been fighting about this with the Senate and [Hanger] for several months, I don’t think anyone should be surprised we stood by our principles.”
Obenshain said any budget that didn’t set aside Medicaid was a “nonstarter.” And that’s largely why Senate Republicans were arguing in caucus meetings for about five hours Thursday, Hanger said.
Once the full Senate met, one expansion-specific amendment was struck down, while another passed. Hanger was vocal on the floor in urging colleagues to kill the first one, which he says would have required the passage of a new law before expansion could occur. Sen. Richard Black, R-Leesburg, sponsored the amendment.
Yet Hanger supported a similar amendment from Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Richmond. Stanley’s change passed and says expansion could only occur after the General Assembly appropriates funds.
Hanger said he supported Stanley’s amendment because he viewed it as “fairly innocuous” compared to Black’s.
Once the House finished its work after midnight, lawmakers called it a day.
Obenshain stayed in Richmond, while Hanger and Gilbert returned to the Valley close to 3 a.m.
“As long as we were making progress,” Gilbert said, “there was no reason to leave.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or email@example.com