RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday gently warned state budget negotiators to send him a spending plan that includes Medicaid expansion or he will add expansion as an amendment, a procedure that gives him a stronger hand in the Senate.
If forced to go that route, Northam (D) said, he would have more power to shape an expansion deal already passed by House Republicans that calls for work requirements, co-pays and other conservative measures.
“We’ve obviously compromised, and if I send an amendment down — which I will if I need to — some of those compromises won’t be in there,” Northam later told reporters, noting that he would have more say over how to spend the $420 million in projected savings from expansion.
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 steadfastly blocked expansion for four years under Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe (D), saying the federal government could not afford to make good on its promise to pick up most of the $2 billion-a-year tab.
Opposition in the House softened this year after Republicans nearly lost control of the chamber in November elections. But there has been no visible shift in the state Senate. The GOP controls both chambers by two seats.
One longtime Republican moderate, Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), supports expansion in some form, although he has objections to the plan passed by the House. Even if the plan could be modified to suit Hanger, the budget would still die on a 20-to-20 vote.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) presides over the Senate and can break most ties, but he is prohibited from voting on the budget. So Northam needs to win over two Republicans to pass a budget with expansion.
But Fairfax is allowed to vote on budget amendments. So if the legislature sends Northam a budget without expansion, Northam could add it as an amendment — one that could clear the Senate as long as a single Republican votes for it and Fairfax breaks the tie.
Northam made his intentions clear Friday morning over breakfast with a bipartisan group of state senators and delegates appointed as budget conferees. Their task is to reconcile the House and Senate budgets before the legislature adjourns March 10.
Using a budget amendment to muscle through something as consequential as Medicaid expansion would be something of a hardball tactic for Northam, a soft-spoken former state senator and pediatrician with close friendships in both parties. But he did not overtly present the scenario as a threat. He shared it in response to a question posed by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City), co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a budget conferee.
“I answered his question that I did plan to send an amendment down,” Northam told reporters hours later at an afternoon gathering.
Asked how his response was received, Northam said: “I was asked a question, and I responded to it. . . . I didn’t have to do the Heimlich on anyone, so it was all good.”
Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford), one of the budget negotiators, described the breakfast as “a very good, affable meeting.”
“I appreciate the governor’s candor,” Newman said. “He’s always an honest and honorable man to work with, and he has been straightforward on this, as he has been on other things.”
But he took Northam’s statement as a concession that the legislature will send him a budget without expansion.
“I’m pleased to hear the governor stating publicly that he kind of anticipates the likelihood that the Senate will stay very strong throughout the entire budget process,” Newman said.
Newman also questioned whether the governor could count on Hanger’s support for such an amendment, given the senator’s concerns about the House-approved expansion plan.
“I don’t see a pathway today toward the McAuliffe-Northam plan,” Newman said. “I don’t know anyone . . . that anticipates that plan could actually make it in a reconvene session or in a regular session. I think Mr. Hanger and others who want to find a way in the Senate have said very clearly that that approach won’t work.”