No one ever said this would be easy.
The House failed for a fourth time to reach the needed supermajority on the private option for Medicaid expansion today. The appropriation has 73 votes (71 today, but two Aye votes were simply not in their seats), two short of the needed 75.
Voting every day has been the strategy pushed by House Speaker Davy Carter, even though there have been several days this week when leadership knew the count was short. He has steadily picked up votes; falling short this morning, in and of itself, is not much of a setback for proponents — most believed that there was a vote or two that would be easier to come by next week. The troubling news for backers of the private option was Carter’s announcement that Rep. Les Carnine told him he was a no.
“He said he was a no and he’s always going to be a no,” Carter said. “That’s the first I’ve heard of that.”
Carnine and Rep. Mary Lou Slinkard were generally considered the final two swing votes needed to get to 75. Now, even assuming proponents can get Slinkard aboard, they’ll be left one vote short.
Multiple sources told me that there were other possible swing votes in play. We’ll see. It’s also believed that there may be some no votes who in the end simply don’t want to actually play a game of chicken over the entire Medicaid program and leave the fiscal session without a DHS budget. The 75th vote may be less about someone changing their mind and more about being ready to end the impasse. Again, though opponents have the votes in the House right now to block the appropriation, they don’t have anywhere close to the votes to amend it or pass something in its place.
Carter said he was “disappointed to hear” about Carnine but there were ongoing discussions with multiple other members that leadership is in ongoing discussions with. In addition to Carnine, both Slinkard and Rep. John Hutchison were called in to talk to Carter just before the vote, which Carter described as an “open, friendly conversation explaining the situation we’re in.” Carter hoped that two of them would agree to vote for the appropriation today, but it was not to be.
“As difficult as this week has been, it’s only been a week,” Carter said. “Even though we’ve voted four times, I really do feel like this issue is getting flushed and working it’s way through the system. I sincerely think we’re making progress. It may not seem that way, but I think we are.”
Carter continued to maintain that he is “100-percent confident we’re going to pass it. …It will pass, it’s just a matter of when.” Said Carter:
We’re going to get this issue resolved. There’s no question to that. There’s 100,000+ people out there that are hanging on what we do up here. This is serious business and this membership is going to take it seriously, and we’re going to get this issue resolved.
Carter expressed frustration over possible shenanigans regarding vote-pairing. An absent member can “pair” with a present member — a no vote pairs with a yes. Absent today, Rep. Reginald Murdock had paired with present member Rep. John Payton, only Payton left the premises, leading to an objection over Murdock’s vote. Carter then ordered the state police to find and summon Payton to the House floor. When Payton could not be found, Rep. Debra Hobbs was asked to pair. She refused. Finally Rep. Stephen Meeks agreed to do it and Murdock’s vote was counted. Carter was not pleased:
On my desk I had a pairing form that [Payton] signed that said he was here — and he pressed the present button that he was here — and I had two other members relying upon his contract, so to speak. I’ve got 87 [legislators] here…all the people in the gallery here, and I expect him to be here. Would I rather have not had to do [order the police to find him]? Yes, but you know, we’ve got to be here. There are some members that want to play games but this is going too far. This has gone too far.
According to social media reports, Payton says he had to leave because of a toothache.
Some no voters have threatened to continue to refuse to pair with absent members to try to make reaching 75 more difficult (when several declined to pair with Rep. Tommy Wren yesterday afternoon, he exploded in anger on the House floor, yelling out the names of those who refused).
“That’s a common courtesy that has been given to the members as long as this Chamber has been operating,” Carter said. “If we’ve got members that want to take such an approach, that’s pretty telling not only to their attitude to what we’re dealing with, but about their approach to the appropriation that we’re talking about. That’s just not reasonable whatsoever.”
I asked Carter about the strategy of voting every day. Many members have expressed frustration about having to take the same vote (for some of them a tough one) over and over. “I sympathize with those members,” Carter said. “Those members have been great during this process. …I don’t like our members going through this that are out here ever day getting beat up like a piñata and put everybody through these games.” But, he said, he had no regrets about the strategy. “There’s no other way,” he said. Carter said repeatedly that there were multiple considerations going on behind the scenes driving this approach, but declined to specify.
I asked about whether he was concerned about the optics of repeated failed votes, particularly given that Carter and others are so confident they can get to 75 eventually but knew they didn’t have the votes on, say, Wednesday or Thursday.
“I’m not concerned what it looks like, I’m concerned about the results,” he said. “I want the bill to pass and that’s the way to get there.”
Democrats, meanwhile, who have provided foundational support for the private option both last year and this year, are increasingly frustrated.
“My bunch’s patience is wearing out,” Minority Whip Joe Jett said. “When you start putting politics over policy on an issue this big, it doesn’t bode well for the Chamber. … We get to a point in time where my side will say enough’s enough. We’ll go home and let the governor call a special session. … and nobody wants that. It’s time for us to do the state’s business.”
“Democrats have been on board with this thing since day one,” Jett said. “This was a Republican idea but we support it because we felt it was responsible government for the state of Arkansas.”
Jett said that he continues to believe that 75 votes are there in the end and said that even opponents have said the same.
“It’s more or less politics over policy,” he said. “Everybody in the chamber pretty much knows that this thing is going to pass, but people just want to get their speaking points in the well and do their politics thing.”
Jett said that if the measure doesn’t pass on Tuesday, his caucus might be at a breaking point, unwilling to continue the parade of daily votes. He wasn’t clear on just what they would do at that point (Hold up other budgets? Simply go home?) All Jett would say is that at that point, “all bets were off.”