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Deja vu: Virginia House again approves Medicaid expansion, but Senate yet to act

Virginia Senate Majority Leader, Thomas Norment (R-James City County), left, talks with state Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), during a special budget session at the Capitol in Richmond.
Virginia Senate Majority Leader, Thomas Norment (R-James City County), left, talks with state Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), during a special budget session at the Capitol in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — Virginia’s House of Delegates once again set the stage for expanding Medicaid, voting Tuesday for a state budget that was almost identical to the one passed earlier this year that was rejected by the state Senate.

The House approved its $115 billion, two-year spending plan during a special session of the General Assembly called by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) after the legislature failed to agree on a budget during the regular session that ended March 10. Lawmakers must settle on a spending plan by July 1 to avoid a government shutdown.

The budget would accept federal dollars to extend Medicaid to some 300,000 additional Virginians under the Affordable Care Act. It now goes back to the state Senate, where Republicans who control 21 seats in that 40-seat chamber have resisted Medicaid expansion.

Va. legislative committee tries again for Medicaid expansion, with tougher rules

The new budget tightens a requirement that able-bodied Medicaid recipients seek jobs or job training, kicking them out of the program if they fail to do so for three consecutive months. It also sets aside some funds to help recipients comply with that requirement, and creates high-risk insurance pools to help bring down the cost of private insurance.

Those changes were aimed at making the deal more palatable to Senate Republicans, two of whom have already said they would consider changing their votes. That would be enough for passage, but first the budget has to get through the Senate Finance Committee.

Key Va. senator says he is willing to break ranks on Medicaid expansion

The GOP also controls the House, and had resisted Medicaid expansion for the past four years. But sentiment changed after Democrats made dramatic gains in last fall’s elections, leaving Republicans with a narrow 51-to-49 majority. Voters sent a strong signal that they favored Medicaid expansion, leading a number of Republicans to change their positions — especially in the southwest part of the state, which is struggling economically.

Tuesday’s budget passed on a vote of 67 to 33. That’s slightly narrower than the vote during the regular session because Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) switched to a ‘no’ vote in protest of the tighter work requirements.

On Wednesday, the legislature will reconvene for its “veto session,” taking up the governor’s vetoes as well as his amendments to legislation.

Northam vetoed 10 bills during the session, his first as governor. At that pace, he will not come close to the 120-veto record set by his predecessor, former governor Terry McAuliffe (D). McAuliffe often described himself as a “brick wall” against conservative Republican social legislation, including bills meant to curb abortion and gay rights.

Two things account for the drop-off. Northam, a former state senator with close friendships in both parties, has sought to work more collaboratively with legislators. And Republicans did not propose their usual raft of hot-button bills this session after the Democratic wave in last fall’s elections.

It is unlikely that Republicans can summon the two-thirds supermajority needed in both chambers to override Northam’s vetoes.

Among the bills Northam vetoed was a measure aimed at preventing the establishment of “sanctuary cities” by prohibiting localities from interfering with federal immigration actions. Northam said that it would require Virginia cities and towns to shoulder the burden of enforcing federal immigration law, either by deputizing local police or by holding undocumented inmates in local lockups.

Va. Gov. Northam vetoes bill banning sanctuary cities

He also vetoed bills that would have prohibited the state from participating in any regional greenhouse gas initiatives without the legislature’s approval; banned local governments from setting a minimum wage for government contractors; and blocked the General Assembly from tinkering with legislative district lines more than every 10 years.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Gov. Terry McAuliffe had signed a record-breaking 111 vetoes. He signed 120 vetoes. This story has been updated.