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GOP hatches dramatic scheme in Virginia

Did Virginia Republicans effectively bribe a state senator in order to help ensure low-income families are denied access to affordable medical care?
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe during a news conference at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Va.,  Monday, March 24, 2014.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe during a news conference at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Va., Monday, March 24, 2014.
Virginia state government has been locked in a fierce budget fight for the last several months. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), after having run on the issue of Medicaid expansion last year,  has said he won't approve a budget without the policy, which would bring coverage to 400,000 low-income Virginians, boost the state's finances, and improve the state's economy.
The Republican-dominated House of Delegates refuses to pass a budget with the policy because, well, they have an irrational hatred of "Obamacare." The state Senate, meanwhile, is evenly split, with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, and is siding with the governor on the issue.
At least, that was the case. The Washington Post reported overnight on a stunning development.

Republicans appear to have outmaneuvered Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state budget standoff by persuading a Democratic senator to resign his seat, at least temporarily giving the GOP control of the chamber and possibly dooming the governor's push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) will announce his resignation Monday, effective immediately, paving the way to appoint his daughter to a judgeship and Puckett to the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission, three people familiar with the plan said Sunday.

There are a few moving pieces to this one. Puckett will give up his seat and Republicans will reward him with a different job, plus a judgeship for his daughter. There will be a special election in Puckett's district, which will very likely elect a Republican and shift control of the state Senate from Democrats to the GOP.
Medicaid expansion was going to be difficult in Virginia anyway, but with Republicans controlling both chambers of the commonwealth's legislature, the uphill climb just got a little steeper and the hopes of 400,000 struggling Virginians just got a little bleaker.
Indeed, just as striking as the scheme itself is the motivation behind it. At this point, it looks as if Virginia Republicans effectively enticed a state senator to quit in order to help ensure low-income families are denied access to affordable medical care.
Imagine what would be possible if conservative policymakers invested this much effort in actually helping working families.
In a written statement, McAuliffe said last night, "I am deeply disappointed by this news and the uncertainty it creates at a time when 400,000 Virginians are waiting for access to quality health care, especially in Southwest Virginia. This situation is unacceptable, but the bipartisan majority in the Senate and I will continue to work hard to put Virginians first and find compromise on a budget that closes the coverage gap."
The "especially in Southwest Virginia" reference stood out. Puckett represents one of the poorest parts of the state, and many of his own constituents stand to benefit greatly from Medicaid expansion. In other words, by quitting and helping Republican state lawmakers, Puckett is leaving his own community much worse off.
As for the road ahead, Laura Vozzella's report looks forward:

Puckett's exit does not immediately sink McAuliffe's chances in the Senate because three moderate Republicans in that chamber support expansion. But some of McAuliffe's Senate allies have recently signaled their discomfort with the idea of letting the Medicaid push trigger a government shutdown. [...] Once Puckett resigns, Senate Republicans are expected to take advantage of their newfound majority by calling members back to Richmond — something that nine members of the Senate can make happen. The legislature has been in a special session for months but has not been meeting regularly. With the Senate back in Richmond, the chamber's new Republican majority could pass a budget without Medicaid expansion.

For his part, the governor last week signaled his intention to try to adopt Medicaid expansion without the legislature's support, though it remains unclear if that's at all possible.
* Postscript: I suppose it's only natural to wonder whether this scheme constitutes a literal "bribe." Did Republicans explicitly offer a state senator (and his daughter) something of value in exchange for the policymaker doing what Republicans asked? I have no background in this area, so I can't speak to the legality at all, but Ian Millhiser took a closer look at state law.