Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Friday vetoed language that the Republican-controlled legislature inserted in the state budget earlier this year to prevent him from expanding Medicaid without its permission.

A spokesman for McAuliffe (D) said the governor had no imminent plan to expand the federal health care program for the poor on his own, suggesting that the veto was more about preserving the governor’s constitutional prerogatives than anything else.

But spokesman Brian Coy also indicated that the governor was once again exploring the possibility of circumventing a General Assembly that is deeply opposed to expansion, which was McAuliffe’s marquee campaign promise when he was elected in 2013.

“We have no action to announce at this time, but we’re going to continue to evaluate how to bring this money home,” Coy said, referring to federal tax dollars that would bankroll the bulk of the $2 billion-a-year cost of an expansion.

Republicans reacted coolly to what they called McAuliffe’s “purported veto.” Even though the governor enjoys a line-item veto, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said, he lacks the power to eliminate the passage he nixed.

“The Governor cannot veto conditions attached to appropriations without vetoing the appropriation as well,” Howell said in a statement. “This has been the consistent practice of the General Assembly, and the Governor will be notified accordingly next week.”

Howell pointed to state Supreme Court rulings saying that the governor must strike a budget item in its entirety when he vetoes it and that he lacks the power to strike out conditions or restrictions that apply to an item.

The House Clerk’s Office, which prints the final laws, ignored McAuliffe’s veto of similar language included in the two-year budget passed in 2014.

That year, Republicans contended that McAuliffe could not veto the language without striking the entire Medicaid program. McAuliffe’s office disagreed with that notion but never challenged the House clerk’s decision to leave his veto out of the final law.

This time, McAuliffe is contending that the anti-expansion language in the bill applied to the entire $100 billion budget, not just the Medicaid program and, as a result, unconstitutionally limits his line-item authority.

“By conditioning all appropriations in the budget on [the language], the Governor’s ability to issue a line-item veto is removed,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “I object to . . . [the condition], yet I am unable to reject it without also rejecting all of the monies appropriated in this $100 billion budget bill.”

The difference of opinion could be the basis for legal action. McAuliffe could sue to try to force the veto to be reflected in the final law. And Republicans would almost certainly file a court challenge if the governor takes action to expand Medicaid.

Beyond providing health care to the poor, McAuliffe maintains, expanding Medicaid to 400,000 uninsured Virginians under the Affordable Care Act would boost the state economy and create tens of thousands of health-industry jobs.

Republicans have opposed expanding what they say is a wasteful program and question whether Washington can afford to keep its promise to pay most of the cost.