Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Searching for two more votes for a private option supermajority

Posted By on Tue, Feb 25, 2014 at 9:18 AM

CARTER: "game-time decision" whether House will vote on private option this afternoon
  • CARTER: "game-time decision" whether House will vote on private option this afternoon

Will the House vote this afternoon on the Department of Human Services appropriation which includes the private option? It’s a “game time decision,” according to House leadership.

Last week, House Speaker Davy Carter committed to a strategy of voting every single day, but it sounds like they’ve reconsidered that approach for this week – a vote will presumably only be held today if they’re confident they have 75. So far, 73 have voted yes, leaving them two votes short of the needed supermajority. Carter also announced this week that the fiscal session will end March 6, leaving lawmakers just over a week before facing the prospect of leaving the session without a budget for the entire Medicaid program. 

A number of private option proponents on both sides of the aisle have been critical of Carter’s approach and occasionally heated rhetoric. They question why a vote was taken on Wednesday and Thursday of last week when it was known they were short of 75 and that a handful of votes were promising they would vote yes a day or two later. Critics suggest that the last handful of votes — including lawmakers who were saying they would eventually vote yes — could have been picked up through quiet engagement and without the need for four consecutive failed votes. Carter, however, points out that they steadily picked up votes throughout the week and believes that the daily votes were necessary to solidify their count. For all of the promises, not all of the "yes, but wait" votes have materialized — there was a "Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown" feeling to last week. From Carter's perspective, perhaps anything less than forcing the issue every day would have only dragged out the gamesmanship. That said, necessary or not, there were certainly some possible downsides to last week's approach: frustration among some lawmakers having to make a tough yes vote multiple times and the perception from multiple failed votes that the votes simply aren't there, lending at least a talking point to the defund bitter-enders. 

Of course, all of this Monday-morning quarterbacking will be a footnote if the private option passes the House in the next two weeks. It appears likely that there will only be one more vote this session — either on the day when 75 votes are in place, or on the final day of the session, when the threat of leaving without a budget will be immediate. Here's the strange dynamic at the Capitol right now: Not only proponents, but most of the no votes, believe that the private option will pass — but nobody knows quite how those last two votes will materialize. Two no votes have even been telling constituents and stakeholders that they won't vote for the private option, but "don't worry, it will pass." 

Another key dynamic: many Republicans, including opponents of the private option, believe that a minority of lawmakers blocking the entire Medicaid budget over a demand to end the private option (and kick 100,000 Arkansans off of coverage) would be a political disaster for the Republican party, with implications for the 2014 statewide races for governor and senator, and control of the House. There is a subset of no votes that privately are hoping the private option will pass for this reason, but don't want to be the ones to take the political heat. 

Many lawmakers believe that the standoff in the House at this point is rooted in the fact that around four or five legislators currently voting no made assurances to Bell and private option proponents that they would vote for the private option if his amendment banning outreach was added. The Bell amendment thus far has picked up only Bell, along with the implicit support of Americans for Prosperity. The Bell amendment itself was reportedly added only after long negotiations in which lawmakers in Bell's camp made commitments of support on which they have not thus far followed through — if that’s true, it helps explain why Carter has ruled out negotiating further.

That is one possible way out this week: a group of lawmakers in the Bell group might collectively flip and make essentially the same speech that Bell did — they oppose the private option, but don't see a responsible political endgame in this session facing an overwhelming majority in favor of the private option, so now it's time to "do the people's business." Given that the Bell amendment was the key "get" in his tactical approach, this would have been a stronger speech to make last week than this week...but perhaps a demonstration of the impasse itself, after a week of failed votes, might have been necessary before some were willing to publicly take this approach. 

In addition to the Bell camp of private option opponents, attention naturally turns to the five Republicans who voted for the private option last year but thus far haven't pushed the yes button this time around, despite the fact that 1) the policy, fully operational for just two months, has been working as intended, with the implementation going as well as even its biggest proponents could have hoped and 2)  the bill is more conservative this year after amendments from Rep. Nate Bell and Rep. John Burris. There is little in the way of substantive policy reasons to explain why Rep. Ann Clemmer, Rep. John Hutchison, Rep. Mary Lou Slinkard, Rep. Les Carnine, and Rep. Allen Kerr supported the measure last spring but are balking this winter.

Clemmer is facing off against French Hill in a Republican primary for the Second District Congressional seat and has concluded that she cannot afford to vote for the private option given the potential Tea Party pushback in the primary. Many Republicans believe that she has made a strategic miscalculation, as the establishment-friendly Hill still plans to hammer her on her 2013 vote. Could Clemmer sense an opportunity to give a Bell-style "get the people's business done" speech, stating opposition to the private option, but ending the impasse as a minority of lawmakers continue block the entire Medicaid budget? 

Hutchison said on the House floor last week that he does not want to leave the people who've gained coverage "out in the cold" but he has concerns over a separate law involving the Health Insurance Marketplace, even though he voted for the law in question. Hutchison met with a DHS official to discuss his concerns yesterday. Hutchison will face a strong Democratic opponent who supports the private option in his bid for re-election, but rumor has it that he may draw a Tea Party opponent in the primary as well. 

Slinkard and Carnine, allies of Rep. Terry Rice, were widely thought to be eventual yes votes based on negotiations last week, but Carnine told Carter he was a solid no last Friday. According to multiple sources, Rice allies wanted to ensure that the Senate voted first in part to make sure that Sen. Bruce Holland, who Rice is challenging in a primary, took the tough vote (Rice is a no, Holland a yes). Rice allies are also widely rumored to have lingering ill feelings toward Carter, Burris and others involved in the maneuvering to get Carter the speakership over Rice (Rice was the presumptive Republican pick; Carter beat him in a last-minute run with Democratic support). Many lawmakers I spoke with believe that Carnine will eventually come around; others believe that he remains angry at Carter's occasionally tough rhetoric last week and has hardened his position. (Interestingly, multiple lawmakers told me that Rep. Jonathan Burnett, another Rice ally, was directly involved in negotiations, making promises that the votes would be there this week if they just waited. Barnett, despite being a middle-of-the-road establishment Republican who's never been shy about accepting federal money in the past, has been a consistent no vote on the private option.)

Finally, most believe that Kerr is a firm no. A bit strange, since Kerr is a Little Rock-based, term-limited, middle-of-the-road Republican.

No more substantive policy changes are coming to the private option — the Bell amendments were as far as supporters were willing to go, not to mention the fact that there is very little chance that the Senate would take up an entirely new bill. That leaves negotiators left trying to convince two more lawmakers to approve a bill they've voted against four times. There are multiple potential avenues to get there, but it's a bit awkward for possible flips at this point to explain why they'd vote for it this week, but not last week, when nothing has really changed. That may be one more challenge for private option negotiators — not just convincing lawmakers to change their votes, but helping them come up with a good reason to explain why. 

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