The resignation of a Virginia state senator gives Republicans the means to steamroll the state’s controversial expansion of Medicaid. Republicans insist the timing of Sen. Phillip Puckett’s departure was just a happy coincidence, but opponents accuse them of using unethical and possibly illegal means to orchestrate a political coup.
The battle over healthcare in Virginia is so heated it’s practically volcanic. On one side, the liberal suburbs of Washington, D.C., support just about any idea proposed by President Barack Obama or one of the Clintons. They are led by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton crony with loose ties to Virginia who narrowly took the governor’s mansion last November. Outside the beltway, Virginia is much more conservative. Former Attorney General Ken Cucinnelli, a tea party candidate, found strong support there in his race against McAuliffe. He called the election a referendum on Obamacare and leveraged the public’s dissatisfaction with the president’s healthcare plan to close his margin of defeat from a predicted landslide to less than 55,000 votes.
When the dust from the election scuffle settled, McAuliffe faced a Republican House of Delegates and a split Senate—20 Republicans and 20 Democrats—in which the Democratic lieutenant governor held the tie-breaking vote. McAuliffe made expanding the state’s Medicaid program a top priority and worked it into his budget. As part of Obamacare, states can receive additional federal funds to relax the criteria for residents to receive Medicaid. Most conservatives oppose the expansion because states are expected to pay a larger percentage of the bill each year.
With the Virginia House voting against the budget and the Senate voting for it, the commonwealth was headed toward a government shutdown just like the one that stymied Washington at the end of last year. But Puckett’s resignation gives Republicans a one-vote edge in the Senate, meaning no tie-breaker, no shutdown, and no Medicaid expansion, at least not in this budget.
The question of the hour in Virginia is: Did Republicans have anything to do with Puckett’s resignation? Puckett’s adult daughter, Martha Ketron, aspires to a family court judgeship in Virginia, for which she would need Senate confirmation. But the legislature has a policy of not appointing its immediate family members to judgeships.
“At this point in my life, I feel that I cannot allow my political career to hamper my daughter's future and her desire to serve the families and children of our area,” Puckett said in a statement. He added that his “family is dealing with several difficult issues that need our attention.”
Republican House member Terry Kilgore said Sunday he had discussed a deputy director job opening with Puckett at the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, but no deal had been finalized. Democrats immediately accused Puckett of trading his Senate seat for a posh job. Kilgore, who is chairman of the commission, said in a statement Monday that Puckett was no longer interested in the job. Puckett added he had never officially been offered the job. Puckett will be replaced in a special election, the date of which has not been set.
Meanwhile, Republicans say they will consider expanding Medicaid, but not as part of the state budget. They have talked about calling a special session to address the issue. But the House has already voted against Medicaid expansion proposals twice this year, and has little reason to change now that it holds all the cards.