Virginia Republicans are setting themselves up to reenact the budget stalemate that nearly broke them as a majority party.
House Republicans have advanced a state version of the state budget that includes Medicaid expansion. That’s rebranding in a very big way.
The Republican-controlled Senate has not, sticking to the pre-November 2017 election script to nibble at the most distant edges of expansion.
The difference between their two approaches: about $600 million.
Which means the conference committee negotiations on the budget will be, ah, spirited. They have the very real potential to be explosive, because the House’s move represents a fundamental break with the GOP catechism. The Senate isn’t yet on board.
House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) couched the change in a truism, saying there was “no question that the political dynamics have changed.”
It is rooted in two realities that many of my friends on the right have failed to see.
The most obvious: the Republican rout in November. As former Del. Scott Lingamfelter – who was among the GOP losers in November – wrote on his Facebook page, “when you go from a significant GOP majority to a razor thin one, this [Medicaid expansion] is what happens.”
Cox described the other reality in a press release:
My longstanding concerns about the cost of expansion aren’t going away, but unfortunately the ACA is here to stay and the Trump administration is the best chance to secure conservative reforms.
“The ACA is here to stay.” Yes it is. Congressional Republicans had everything they needed to repeal the ACA in 2017, except leadership, vision and determination. Their failure all but assured the law will live, in some form, for years to come.
Cox & Co. decided to try to make the best of these new realities, opting to make the best deal they could while they still had the votes to get it.
But House Republicans should be under no illusions their policy change will give them cover in the 2019 elections.
Incumbents may face challenges from the right. With the legality of the so-called incumbent-protection act in doubt — meaning incumbents may no longer dictate the method of their renomination for office – a flurry of activist-driven conventions may be on the horizon.
Or not. House Republicans didn’t suffer after approving massive tax increases for road construction in 2013. That increase breached the Republican gospel on tax hikes in staggering fashion. But their House majority held firm at 67 seats after the 2013 elections.
What made it work? A Republican governor — Bob McDonnell — pushed the deal with both Senate and House in tow. Plus, there was no state budget to muddy the waters.
Yes, the GOP got swept in the 2013 statewide elections. But the tax issue barely registered.
The current divide harkens to an older, more destructive episode: the 2004 budget fight over a sales tax increase.
That battle pitted the GOP-controlled House (which opposed an increase) against the GOP-controlled Senate (which favored the idea). In the middle, and eager to play the role of honest broker, then-Gov. Mark Warner (D), who also favored a hike.
The increasingly ugly back-and-forth between the two chambers almost brought state government to a halt until a band of House Republicans flipped to embrace higher taxes.
In 2005, a number of the flippers faced primary challenges. Almost all of them survived. The one big name Republican who suffered: GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore, who took heat for his alleged lack of leadership during the tax fight from the party’s anti-tax wing.
Republicans also lost three House seats that year. They lost four more in 2007, as well as their Senate majority.
It wasn’t until 2009, with President Obama as a campaign foil, that Republicans were able to reverse their slide.
Republican lawmakers may find creative ways to bridge their differences and make it all seem as though conservative principles won the day. History offers them an incentive to do so. But it also shows that their base may need time, and a different White House occupant, before it’s willing to follow.