On a quiet day at the Capitol after yesterday’s drama, Gov. Asa Hutchinson told the press this afternoon that he is “more optimistic than ever that we’ll have a successful outcome” in terms of breaking the budget impasse and continuing the Medicaid expansion.
Both houses of the legislature passed “Arkansas Works,” the governor’s plan to to continue the state’s private option Medicaid expansion, by overwhelming majorities last week. However, a rump group of ten Republican senators is holding up the funding (the appropriation demands 75 percent approval from both houses under the prevailing understanding of the law).
“I’ve had two different strategies,” Hutchinson said. The first strategy is the straightforward one: “to work on the votes to reach the three fourths vote and to educate the members to the consequences of the vote and the impact on our budget.”
The other strategy, a Plan B procedural maneuver, was revealed yesterday: A phony amendment giving in to the Tea Party Ten’s demand would be attached to the appropriation. Once passed, the governor would line-item veto the amendment (no surprise involved, the governor would announce his intention upfront). The budget would be funded and the Medicaid expansion would continue.
At least two of the Ten have publicly stated publicly that they would be willing to wave the white flag and surrender on the policy question as long as they were allowed this meaningless show vote. It could be more than two — Hutchinson said today that “there’s a group of the Ten that have indicated that they will vote for and support the amended appropriation bill.” He declined to say how many.
However, the governor’s line-item-veto plan needs buy-in from the entire coalition of legislators in favor of “Arkansas Works.” They have to agree to vote for the appropriation with the amendment they oppose, trusting that the governor will dispose of the unwanted amendment by veto. Democrats, who learned of the plan only a few hours before the vote came to committee, balked. They said that they were reluctant to vote against a program they favor, even if it was merely a show vote. They said that they were in no mood to give cover to the Tea Party Ten. Some just wanted more time to digest the convoluted scheme; others had legal questions. The plan is likely to be taken up again on Tuesday.
“I continue to work having confidence that eventually we’ll get to the three fourths vote to pass it in the Senate, as we already have in the House,” Hutchinson said. “I also have the objective of minimizing the turmoil and to get this past the session early on and efficiently — and so the line item veto strategy developed and was presented. Obviously that is something that the legislators wanted to think about, wanted to understand, and look at this momentous decision over the weekend.”
Asked where the line-item-veto idea originated, the governor said, “This is something that I thought of some time ago but I did not share those thoughts broadly because I wanted to focus on getting the three fourths vote. At the same time I recognized this as a possibility, there were probably some other key legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, who might have thought that this is a constitutional prerogative of the governor and [that it] might be an option.”
Hutchinson said that he wasn’t disavowing Plan A (eventually getting two of the Tea Party Ten to cave), but felt the time was ripe for Plan B (the line-item veto strategy). He said that he felt “very good about where we are in both strategies.” That claim sounds somewhat dicey at the moment on Plan A (he hasn’t been able to flip them yet!); Plan B is plausible only if the Democratic caucus is willing to buy in to his scheme.
“I think [both strategies] are very viable but … the line item veto strategy allows everyone to vote their conscience and to accomplish a result,” Hutchinson said. “Whenever you can follow our constitution in Arkansas and achieve a result…that 70 percent of the legislature — the majority of both parties — supports, to me that’s a good outcome. … I’m not discouraged [about] either strategy, I just would rather have it resolved next week versus ten votes down the road or three weeks down the road.”
But…wait a second! Not everyone gets to vote their conscience, I pointed out. Part of the problem he ran into yesterday was precisely that Democrats were asked to vote against their conscience on the wink-wink amendment.
“You’re casting a vote based upon the commitment that Arkansas Works is going to be funded,” Hutchinson said. “That’s an honest vote. That’s not complicated to explain. As someone wisely pointed out, the end result is a lot more important than the process. As long as you’re not violating a constitutional principle — and we’re following the constitution. As long as you’re not doing something unethical — and we’re being straightforward about this. That’s my admonition and encouragement to my Democrat[ic] friends: keep an eye on the end result. The voters understand that — you are casting a vote to accomplish the funding of Arkansas Works, end of story.”
This subject circled around in various ways, but the governor’s core argument was that the aginners would get to vote for what they said they wanted, the pro-“Arkansas Works” side would get to vote to enact their policy goal via a commitment from Hutchinson, and the buck would stop with the governor and his veto pen. Kumbaya.
I asked Hutchinson about concerns raised by some pro-“Arkansas Works” lawmakers that they should not have to bail out the Ten, the ones making shutdown threats.
“I understand those emotions but we need to diminish the personal angst about this and keep an eye on the 250,000 Arkansans who are watching very carefully what happens here as to whether they’re going to have health care or not,” he said. “I know those that care about this issue — and the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats care about what happens to those 250,000 — they want that end result. This is a way to achieve that end result.”
On the the line-item veto strategy, Hutchinson said, “I’ve got what I need on the Republican side.” He said that he had been communicating with the Democrats to try to gain their support: “They wanted time over the weekend to think about it. That didn’t indicate their opposition to it. And that they have some level of comfort that we’ll be able to address this successfully next week.”
On the lack of communication prior to yesterday, Hutchinson said, “I didn’t want to diminish the focus on getting the three fourths vote. So I did not broadly discuss [the line-item veto] possibility or get in to that strategy. In the back of my mind I had considered this, but it was really laid out broadly to the Democrats and the Republicans [yesterday] for the first time.”
I asked whether he expected the Democrats to buy in to the strategy with just an hour or two to decide. “I am understanding [of] their reticence and that they need some time to study it,” he said. “I respect that. Some came to it very quickly and said, ‘this makes sense, let’s get it done because it accomplishes our objective.’ There was also a case to be made that we had the votes that we needed from the Republican Ten but what happens over a weekend is unpredictable. But I fully respect, appreciate, and understand some of the Democrats’ reticence. They wanted to think it through and they might have wanted to talk to some of their constituents and advisers. That’s the reason it’s been carried over for the weekend.”
Hutchinson was asked about the legal questions raised about the viability of the line-item-veto plan.
“I have vetted it and feel totally comfortable with it,” he said. “The constitutional language is clear. I have a history of all the exercises [of the line-item veto]. I’ve talked to legal counsel. I don’t think there’s any question about it.” Hutchinson said he has also walked through the strategy with the Bureau of Legislative Review. “I don’t think there’s any room for doubt there,” he said.
A much more likely legal issue, Hutchinson argued, was a lawsuit arguing that the state was obligated to fund Medicaid if the legislature failed to pass a DHS appropriation. “I think [the line-item veto strategy] is the safest path that would get us a DHS appropriation, that has clear precedent with previous governors and there is absolutely no adverse decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court on this point,” he said.
Hutchinson said that the line-item veto strategy “allows us to turn the page and move to more work that’s important for us to do.”
Hutchinson said, however, “not all of our eggs are in this basket. This is really a legislative decision.” He said that he would not be worried if legislative leaders signaled next week that it was not a viable path. “We’ll just move to the other strategy I’ve worked for which is to continue to try to get the three fourths vote that’s needed,” he said.
On that strategy, Hutchinson rebuffed criticism that he had not been aggressive enough in using his bully pulpit to put pressure on the Ten.
“I’ve used the strategies that I think have the best chance of success,” he said. “There are some that tell me I should be more aggressive toward the Democrats, but no, I think giving them time is appropriate, understanding that they’re working their way through this. And having confidence and a trust relationship that they’re going to reach the right conclusion. On the Ten, if somebody wants to ‘crash’ the government — there’s not a whole lot you can say beyond that. But I have been more forceful this last week, virtually every day having more news … about the consequences of a No vote. I’ve been about as far out as any governor could possibly be, but I think I’ve had a good balance of continuing the communication.”
If you’ve made it this far, perhaps you’ve noticed an oddity to the governor’s argument. He’s saying that the line-item-veto strategy is not the only viable option — he’s confident that somehow he could eventually get a supermajority vote. But he’s also saying that he’s already doing everything in his power to convince the Ten to flip now. So, if not for the line-item-veto gimmick, how exactly is he going to get the votes he needs?
“I just have to reach into my toolbox and bring out some more,” he said.