RICHMOND — As the House and Senate remain divided over whether to expand Medicaid eligibility to 400,000 uninsured Virginians, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. made a rare appearance before House Republicans to say his chamber was dead set against the House plan.
In a closed-door gathering Thursday with House Republicans, Norment (R-James City) said all 21 Senate Republicans were united against expansion.
But at the same meeting, one of those senators, Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta) indicated that he might support Medicaid expansion if the House plan is reshaped.
Hanger told House Republicans that if Gov. Ralph Northam (D) worked with him to modify it to his liking, he would provide a crucial vote.
That sent shock waves through the caucus because if the governor proposes Medicaid expansion as an amendment to the state budget, all that would be needed for passage is one Republican in the Senate — Hanger — to join all the Democrats in voting for it.
Hanger predicted that if the proposal is revamped — he wants to scrap the tax on hospitals and beef up work requirements for Medicaid recipients — other Senate Republicans will follow.
“Really, I don’t intend to be the only one,” Hanger recalled telling them. “There will be others that will go along with me.”
Hanger’s comments greatly frustrated Norment, who had hoped to present a united, anti-Medicaid front that would convince the House to give up on expansion in state budget negotiations.
Instead, both sides remain dug in, and legislators have given up trying to pass a two-year budget before Saturday, when the session is supposed to conclude. They need a spending plan in place by the start of the new fiscal year July 1 to avoid a government shutdown.
Lawmakers face several choices if they can’t approve a budget by Saturday. They can vote to extend the current session, they can resolve to call a special session, or they can wait for the governor to call them back into session to finish the budget.
In a sign of just how high tensions were running, the Senate passed a resolution asking Northam to call a special session, but the House refused to take it up. The House passed one of its own, which the Senate likewise snubbed. Unless one side relents before adjourning Saturday, the resolutions will die, leaving it to Northam to call the special session.
Norment capped off Friday with a fiery floor speech that took aim at House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who backed Medicaid expansion after his party nearly lost control of the House in November elections. Norment noted that just 19 of 51 House Republicans joined Democrats to vote for a budget that included expansion and Cox was the only member of the GOP leadership on board.
“If I . . . was out on a position by myself and my entire leadership team was the other way on that same position, I would resign,” Norment said. “It would be an unequivocal demonstration that I was not providing the leadership that was consistent with the majority of where my caucus wanted to go. All but one of the leadership team voted against. I won’t say that is a reflection of a meltdown, but it is certainly a reflection that there is a modest chaos going [on] down the hall.”
Cox spokesman Parker Slaybaugh declined to comment on Norment’s remarks.
“Speaker Cox is not interested in a back and forth,” Slaybaugh said, adding that the speaker “believes a few weeks away from Richmond will give us the opportunity to bring a fresh discussion on the next steps.”
Even some Democrats expressed shock.
“This is a time that we all need to work together,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria). “I don’t think it would be at all conducive to imply that the speaker, the new speaker, should resign.”
Norment said later that he was not saying Cox should step down, only that he would do so were he in that position.
Northam won office last year on a promise to expand the federal-state health-care program to as many as 400,000 uninsured Virginians. Republicans in the House and Senate blocked expansion for four years under Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe (D), saying the federal government would not make good on its promise to pick up most of the $2 billion-a-year tab.
Opposition in the House softened after Democrats picked up 15 seats in an anti-Trump wave, but there has been no visible shift in the Senate, where Republicans have dismissed the work requirement in the House plan as an “aspirational work suggestion.”
As tension over the budget impasse mounted this week, rumors swirled that various Republican senators were about to flip. Perhaps a senator from a rural area, where hospitals are in desperate need of a boost. Or a suburban swing-district Republican, who next year faces voters who helped Northam win handily. Or a transactional type who might be willing to cut a deal.
But at least so far, only Hanger has publicly acknowledged that he is open to some form of expansion.
That’s one reason why House Republicans asked to hear from Hanger. They also wanted to hear from Sen. Ben Chafin (R-Russell), who represents a rural district and is close to Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), who has touted expansion as a means of helping the struggling southwest corner of the state.
Chafin declined to say what he told the group because caucus meetings are typically private, but he said he remains “steadfast” in his opposition to expansion.
“I don’t think it’s sustainable,” he said. “I think the ACA [Affordable Care Act] is falling apart. I think if there was ever a time not to expand Medicaid, it’s now.”