Playing close to the vest
On his Sunday news talk show, Roby Brock of Talk Business and Politics on KATV, Channel 7, drew out Gov. Asa Hutchinson on his now-clear opposition to the Senate Republican health-care bill.
Hutchinson made it plain that, as governor, he believes the proposed Medicaid cuts, especially in Medicaid expansion for his Arkansas Works program, would hurt his state deeply and inordinately.
He said he had worked closely with the state’s Republican senators—John Boozman and Tom Cotton—to convey his deep concern.
Then Brock asked him the question: Do you feel like the Arkansas senators are fighting for your position? Asa answered: “Absolutely.”
Alas, we’ll have to take the governor’s word on that. Or at least I will, because Cotton’s office won’t answer me on anything and Boozman’s office won’t answer me on this.
For that matter, though, they’re not telling anybody—in the press or public, anyway—what their position is as they represent Arkansas, using the word “represent” generously, on the most important domestic issue of our time.
On the day Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled this bill for purposes of quick, discussion-less passage, four arch-conservative Republican U.S. senators—Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Ted Cruz of Texas—said they were not ready to vote for it because it wasn’t mean enough. “Mean” is my word.
A day later, Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada stood beside his state’s popular Republican governor and said he had been persuaded by the governor’s concern about losing Medicaid expansion to oppose his majority leader’s bill.
A day later, Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said he found the cutbacks to Medicaid expansion unacceptably harmful to his state.
A day later, moderate Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said that the Medicaid cuts were entirely too punitive to rural areas, of which Maine has plenty, and that she was a “no” vote on McConnell’s procedural plan to advance the bill for a quick vote.
Somewhere along the way, Republican U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia expressed varying degrees of reservation based on the cuts to Medicaid.
Through it all, Arkansas people heard not a peep from their two Republican senators. The silence abounded even as their Republican governor warned of dire effects.
Meantime, all prospective vote tallies in Washington assumed that Cotton and Boozman were “aye” on whatever McConnell could leverage, no matter its effect on Arkansas.
Insiders in Washington had reason to be confident of Boozman’s and Cotton’s position even as the folks in Arkansas who had elected them, and who stood to be harmed deeply and inordinately according to their own governor, had no idea.
Now comes Hutchinson to say that, yes, absolutely, Boozman and Cotton have been heroic in hearing him out and carrying his cause to the relevant power centers.
Still, neither of them will dare utter a position publicly. The best their offices will do is tell reporters that the health bill’s formulation is “fluid” and that they don’t want to get ahead of it or themselves.
Paul, Johnson, Lee, Cruz, Heller, Collins, Cassidy, Capito, Murkowski, Portman—they dared to get ahead of the bill in advancement of clear advocacy either for their philosophical points of view or their constituents.
There is some thought that getting ahead of important legislation is what a senator is supposed to do.
The bill indeed is fluid. But the Medicaid element is clear. Either you oppose the cuts within the bill or you don’t.
Unless you’re Boozman or unless you’re Cotton, that is, in which case we know only that they are said to be taking what Hutchinson tells them and “absolutely” doing something supportive with it.
In Boozman’s case, this may be nothing more than his usual waiting to be told how to vote, presumably by McConnell.
The best scenario for him is that McConnell will present him a changed bill that makes some concession to his governor and his state—thanks not to him for anything he did, but to senators actually representing their similarly situated constituents in other states.
Cotton seems to be playing what I guess is an inside game, though he usually plays outside games because that’s where the headlines are.
He is ambitious for the presidency and he wants to protect his bona fides as a hellfire-and-brimstone conservative. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to make trouble in his home state by abandoning his party’s governor and leaving a giant hole in his state’s health-care infrastructure.
He has chosen to lay low and hope everything works out so that he can vote for a bill that covers both sides of his posterior.
In neither case is it clear your U.S. senators are advocating for you.
But they’re certainly doing all they can to stay behind the issue.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@ arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.