Play­ing close to the vest

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - John Brum­mett

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.

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