Although both chambers of the legislature are controlled by the GOP, they have been split on the question of whether to extend Medicaid coverage to an additional 400,000 low-income Virginians, with the House in favor and the Senate opposed. But in recent weeks, two Republican senators have indicated they would back expansion under certain conditions — enough to pass the budget.
The General Assembly needs to approve a budget by July 1 or face a government shutdown. The legislature reconvened last month, ostensibly to negotiate a budget agreement between the House and the Senate, but the Senate has not put forth a plan.
Saslaw’s suggestion that he would discharge a a committee for this purpose — to get a bill to the floor against the panel’s wishes — is an extraordinarily rare move that has not been tried since the mid-1970s.
The tactic could be seen as a humiliating end-run around Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who is both Senate majority leader and co-chairman of the Finance Committee — or as a way for Norment to keep his hands clean of Medicaid expansion even if passes out of the closely divided Senate.
“That is the nuclear option,” Saslaw said in an interview Tuesday. “But we don’t have any choice. We can’t shut the government down. . . . We’re going to get Medicaid expansion one way or another.”
Norment reacted furiously.
"That Senator Saslaw and some outlying Republicans are openly using the term 'nuclear option' indicates the devastating effect such an action will have on the Senate," Norment said. "It would be unprecedented to use this tactic, especially with a budget bill. Doing so will irrevocably change the Senate of Virginia. This is the bastardization of Senate tradition to score a political win."
Under the Affordable Care Act championed by President Barack Obama, Washington allowed states to open their Medicaid rolls to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $16,643 for an individual. The federal government has pledged to pay at least 90 percent of the cost, which in Virginia would amount to about $2 billion a year.
Thirty-two states, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, accepted the offer. But Virginia, which has one of the nation’s most frugal Medicaid programs, refused. Republicans said they feared the federal government would withdraw its support and leave the state picking up the cost.
Opposition in the House softened this year, after Republicans nearly lost control of the House in last November’s elections. But the Senate, which did not face voters last year, remained opposed during the regular legislative session.
The Senate convened Monday to send the House’s two-year, $115 billion spending plan to the Finance Committee. The committee has met twice since, but adjourned Tuesday without voting or scheduling another meeting.
If the panel doesn’t pass a budget before the full Senate returns May 22, Saslaw said he would make the discharge motion, which would need a simple majority to pass.
The Senate customarily discharges committees to speed along procedural matters. But using that tactic to muscle a bill to the floor against a committee’s wishes is almost unheard of in Virginia.
If the budget bill comes to the floor that way, it would be the House’s budget plan, unamended. The Senate could amend it on the floor, but if the House did not agree to the changes, the bill would wind up in a conference committee.
Saslaw said he was wary of sending the budget to a conference committee because of the delay and the potential for political “shenanigans.” To avoid that, the Senate would have to either accept the House budget as is — or work with the House ahead of time to ensure it would accept any Senate amendments.
“I would prefer no conference. And that’s what we’re going to try to work out this week,” Saslaw said. “If you bypass that conference, which is best way to go, guess what? It goes directly to the governor. . . . I want Medicaid expansion plopped on the governor’s desk, period, no ifs, no ands, no buts.”
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a pediatric neurologist, has been a steadfast supporter of Medicaid expansion. His spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel sidestepped a question about Saslaw’s intended strategy, saying only: “Governor Northam will continue to work with leaders in the House and Senate to make sure a budget is adopted by the General Assembly as quickly as possible.”