RICHMOND — Virginia’s slow-motion battle over the state budget and Medicaid expansion inched forward Monday as the state Senate convened for a procedural move that put the spending bill before the chamber’s money committee.
The Senate gathered to assigned the House’s two-year, $115 billion spending plan to the Senate Finance Committee, which met immediately afterward but did not vote. The panel is expected to vote on the bill at a meeting Tuesday or Wednesday.
The action inside the chamber was so low-key that it was easily missed — even on a day when the other business was passing feel-good resolutions, such as the one that honored Kline’s Dairy Bar, a Harrisonburg ice cream shop celebrating its 75th anniversary.
But passions were high outside, as dozens of health-care advocates staged a “die-in” by sprawling on Capitol Square.
“Chose rent over medicine,” read a poster in the shape of a headstone held by Linda Higgins, pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Richmond.
The Senate’s action came a month after the House passed its plan during at the start of a special legislative session, which Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called after the legislature failed to pass a budget during the General Assembly session that concluded March 10.
The state needs a budget in place by July 1 to avoid a government shutdown. The full Senate will not return to Richmond to vote on the spending bill that emerges from the committee until May 22. Budget negotiations will not formally begin again in earnest until both chambers have voted on each other’s bills. But legislators said that informal talks will continue.
At the heart of the budget impasse is a disagreement over whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Northam and the Republican-controlled House want to allow up to 400,000 uninsured Virginians enroll in the federal-state health insurance program. The Republican-led Senate rejected expansion during the regular session, although support among GOP senators has grown.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, who has exchanged a number of sharply worded news releases with the House and the governor in recent weeks, said the time had come to end the “juvenile exchanging of positions through the media.”
Speaking at the committee meeting, Norment also said that there are a number of senators who will never vote for Medicaid expansion but “that does not mean that we are going to stand on the sidelines.”
Norment warned against reading anything into those remarks.
“I don’t need any spin on it,” he said. “That should not be telegraphed that anyone is flipping their position or weakening. It just makes a lot of sense.”
Under the Affordable Care Act championed by President Barack Obama, Washington encouraged states to allow more people to enroll in Medicaid by offering to pick up most of the tab. Thirty-three states, including Maryland, and the District accepted the offer.
Virginia’s legislature opposed expansion for the past four years, contending that Washington could not be trusted to uphold its promise to pay least 90 percent of the $2 billion-a-year cost.
Opposition in the House softened after Democrats nearly took control of the chamber in an anti-Trump wave in November. The Senate, which did not face voters last year, remained firmly opposed during the regular session. But two Senate Republicans, Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) and Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) have indicated they may provide the votes needed to pass expansion on a budget vote. And a third, Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) has hinted she is on the fence.