Thursday, February 13, 2014

Anti-private option holdouts not swayed by Bell's amendment

Posted By on Thu, Feb 13, 2014 at 5:30 PM

The gist of Rep. Nate Bell’s pitch yesterday to opponents of the private option: Bell argues that there is no responsible political endgame to a defund strategy in the 2014 fiscal session, so he wants to get what he can and fight the private option in 2015. (Bell is explicit that he still wants to kill the policy down the road, and his amendment aims to squelch enrollment in the program in the mean time.)

This approach has opened up a divide within the divide in the Republican party in Arkansas. The caucus was already split over policy — supporting or opposing the private option. Now, among those opposed, there is a disagreement over tactics and strategy. There’s an obvious parallel to the recent series of fights in D.C. between those like Sen. Ted Cruz, who wanted to use a government shutdown or a possible breach of the debt ceiling to try to defund Obamacare — and those who felt that the Cruz approach wouldn't accomplish anything other than damaging the party politically.

Today, I've been hearing similar arguments among Republicans, including private-option opponents. Some believe that the party is likely to be on the cusp of an enduring majority in the state and that a protracted battle over the private option this year, without the votes to pass a budget in its place, is doomed to fail and would only damage the Republican brand. Others argue that their best chance to stop the private option is to hunker down now and take advantage of the supermajority requirement to use a small group to block it — at least in the Senate — hoping that the policy's proponents will eventually cave. 

In any case, so far, while the amendments from Bell and Rep. John Burris may have picked up enough votes in the House to get over the hump, Bell's strategy has thus far not been adopted by any of the nine senators who plan to vote against the appropriation. 

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, who supports the private option, said the amendments were "primarily geared toward the House side" and that they "didn't change any votes" on the Senate side. "No senator ever indicated that these amendments would get their support," he said. Lamoureux said that things in the Senate remain in the same standstill that has been in place for weeks, and that there was no sign of any of the nine budging. He said that if the House passes the appropriation, the Senate will likely take it up the following day. "I think we need a vote and to see where we’re at," he said. 

In the House, private-option foe Rep. Justin Harris expressed his disappointment with Bell's tactic of engaging with private option proponents. House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman agreed. "I’m not supportive of the premise of the private option, so I’m not here to try to fix the private option," Westerman said. "I’m here to try to end it. … I’m not in favor of it with those amendments on it." 

I asked Westerman about Bell's strategic argument — opponents have the votes to block something but not to pass something. 

"That’s why we have the process," Westerman said. "I don’t know. … I didn’t write the constitution but on an appropriation, nine votes in the Senate is a majority." 

Rep. Joe Farrer was also unmoved by the amendments. "All the Bell amendment does in my opinion is just kick the can down the road," he said. "It doesn’t stop the thing. You can’t stop QualChoice, Blue Cross Blue Shield and all the other insurance companies from advertising. … The [amendment] does nothing, it doesn’t stop anything. All it does is continue the program. I believe they had 9 in the Senate and we had 26 in the House to beat it. I think we could have stopped it." 

But even if they had the votes to stop the appropriation, I pointed out, they don't have anywhere near the votes to amend it or pass something new. 

“Right — but then you play a game of chicken [over the Medicaid budget]," Farrer said. "That’s something I’m willing to do.”

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