RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed portions of the state budget Friday and vowed to defy the legislature by expanding Medicaid without its approval, setting up a legal showdown with Republicans even as he averted a government shutdown.
McAuliffe’s actions — cheered as bold leadership from the left, denounced as brazen overreach on the right — represent a bid to reassert his power as chief executive following the GOP’s recent takeover of the state Senate. They plunged a Capitol that puts a premium on gentility more deeply than ever into harsh, Washington-style enmity.
McAuliffe unveiled his plans while accusing Republicans of “demagoguery, lies, fear and cowardice.” The Democrat blasted them for the first seven minutes of his 20-minute news conference before getting to his main point: He would prevent a government shutdown by signing the budget, but he would also exercise his line-item veto seven times, in part to strike budget language that Republicans intended to block Medicaid expansion.
Legislators will act on McAuliffe’s vetoes Monday when they reconvene in Richmond, and the outcome is uncertain. The GOP’s majority is large enough in the House of Delegates to override a veto, but not in the Senate.
Yet House Republicans are considering parliamentary moves that could kill the vetoes before they ever get to the other chamber.
No matter what happens in the General Assembly, McAuliffe will be searching for a way to extend health coverage to 400,000 low-income Virginians through the Affordable Care Act.
So far, he has offered no specifics about how he would do that in a state where all funding — even the pass-through money from Washington available to bankroll Medicaid expansion — must be appropriated by the legislature. Republicans say expanding Medicaid without legislative authority would be illegal.
McAuliffe said the “moral imperative” to provide health insurance to the poor was forcing him to bypass the Republican-controlled General Assembly. For months, the governor has been quietly exploring ways to get around the legislature to expand Medicaid.
For the first time Friday, he publicly acknowledged he was going that route — even as some of his own allies questioned the constitutionality of his decision.
“Secretary Hazel will have a plan on my desk by no later than September 1st detailing how we can move Virginia health care forward even in the face of the demagoguery, lies, fear and cowardice that have gripped this debate for too long,” McAuliffe said, referring to William A. Hazel Jr., the secretary of health and human resources.
Republicans reacted furiously, suggesting that they would use parliamentary moves and even legal action to block some of McAuliffe’s vetoes and any attempt at unilateral action on Medicaid.
“The Governor’s attempt to usurp the constitutionally proscribed powers of the legislative branch is a dangerous threat to the rule of law, separation of powers, and foundation of representative democracy that we simply cannot allow,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and other House GOP leaders said in a joint statement. “We are prepared to challenge this blatant executive overreach through all available avenues, including the court system.”
Nowhere was the partisan divide more vividly on display than on Twitter, where Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax) celebrated the governor’s vetoes by dubbing him “T-Mack the Knife!” and Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) declared: “This is what leadership looks like!”
Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), meanwhile, condemned McAuliffe’s “outrageous display of executive arrogance,” and Del. Greg D. Habeeb (R-Salem) said the governor “has made it clear he believes he was elected Emperor.”
McAuliffe’s heated rhetoric and go-it-alone strategy marked a dramatic — and likely irreversible — shift in tactics for a governor who had entered his first elective office with an aggressive bipartisan charm offensive, said former Virginia Commonwealth University professor Bob Holsworth.
“He becomes a different governor today,” Holsworth said. “The era of good feelings has absolutely evaporated.”
House Republicans suggested that at least one of the seven vetoes could be ruled out of order when lawmakers return to Richmond on Monday, which would mean it would be tossed out before it ever gets to the Senate.
A variety of parliamentary moves could put that question into play, with either Speaker Howell or House Clerk G. Paul Nardo empowered to rule on it.
The veto most in question strikes language that Republicans had added as an amendment to the budget when they passed it June 12. It specified that Medicaid cannot be expanded unless the General Assembly explicitly appropriates money for it.
Republicans note that the state Supreme Court has ruled that a governor can veto entire budget items but not portions of those items. Since the language is part of a broader Medicaid budget item, Republicans say it is possible that McAuliffe cannot veto that portion without vetoing the state’s entire Medicaid program.
Another of McAuliffe’s vetoes would eliminate all language related to a state Medicaid commission.
The panel had been set up under then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to determine whether the existing Medicaid program had achieved certain reforms that the legislature required before expansion could take place. Democrats had pushed for its creation, but Republicans had used it to thwart expansion.
McAuliffe called the commission a “sham to pretend that the legislature is serious about Medicaid reform and expansion.” His veto was seen as largely symbolic, because language creating the commission will remain in the state code even if it is removed from the budget.
Another veto would strip $300,000 in funding for an ethics commission created in response to a $165,000 gifts scandal involving McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.
McAuliffe signed the bill creating the commission and made no substantive changes to ethics legislation the legislature passed this year.
But on Friday, he said the reforms were “far weaker than what Virginians deserve.” He said funding the commission would be premature until tougher ethics rules are passed.
In another apparent slap at legislators, McAuliffe issued a directive that state staff suspend all planning work for a new Capitol Square office building meant to house lawmakers and their staffs. McAuliffe had already signed off on the $300 million building. On Friday, he said it was inappropriate at a time when budget writers “can’t find $10 million to decrease homelessness.”
The governor has seven days to take action on the budget, which reached his desk Sunday. His office indicated that he is likely to offer more changes before the clock expires this weekend.
On the campaign trail and in office, McAuliffe promised that he would not sign a budget that did not expand Medicaid. As a result, passage of the state budget has been deadlocked for months, with McAuliffe and a slim majority of the Senate in favor and the House opposed.
The impasse threatened to cause a government shutdown if it was not resolved by the start of the fiscal year July 1.
Liberal groups had implored McAuliffe on Thursday to veto the entire budget, but he said he did not dare do so with just 10 days to go.
McAuliffe quickly used his actions on the budget to try to raise cash for his political action committee.
In a fundraising e-mail Friday, the governor slammed the GOP and, before asking for a $5 donation, said: “I remain committed to the central promise of my campaign: One of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest nations in the world has no excuse for not providing health care to its needy citizens.”
Some supporters of Medicaid expansion questioned McAuliffe’s strategy. His sole GOP ally in the House, Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), said the governor is missing an opportunity to debate detailed expansion plans and seek broader support in the House.
“My advice would have been sign the budget and call a special session,” Rust said. “That’s the legislative process. This is sort of tossing that out the window, unfortunately.”