Our U.S. se­na­tors, re­lieved on the side­line

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - John Brum­mett

I’d never asked in ad­vance for per­mis­sion to speak on the phone with a press sec­re­tary for an Arkansas politi­cian, much less been turned down.

But these are dif­fer­ent days and there’s a first time for ev­ery­thing. The home-state press, like the home state over­all, mat­ters less now that pol­i­tics is all about po­lar­ized al­le­giance to party and na­tion­al­ized is­sues.

That lit­tle sign David Pryor kept on his Se­nate desk say­ing “Arkansas comes first” is as shat­tered as a Ten Com­mand­ments mon­u­ment.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cot­ton’s of­fice never re­sponds to me. But un­til lately I’d main­tained the cor­dial­ity nearly ev­ery­one feels with U.S. Sen. John Booz­man and his peo­ple.

What’s dif­fer­ent lately is that Booz­man, timid and low-vis­i­bil­ity by na­ture, got caught in a vor­tex on re­peal­ing and re­plac­ing Oba­macare.

He wants to re­peal and re­place be­cause … well, that’s what con­ser­va­tives want to do. But both bills to ac­com­plish re­peal and re­place that were thrust on Booz­man by his pup­peteer, Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell, pre­sumed to cut Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion fund­ing in a way that drew op­po­si­tion—to that pro­vi­sion, not Oba­macare re­peal and re­place al­to­gether—from Booz­man’s friend back home, Repub­li­can Gov. Asa Hutchin­son.

Booz­man found him­self torn be­tween the gen­eral essence of re­peal-and-re­place con­ser­vatism and at­tend­ing to the needs of his state as framed by a gover­nor he has al­ways liked and ad­mired. And he was torn in the con­text of Mc­Connell’s need­ing 50 votes to pass Oba­macare re­peal with Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence’s tie-break­ing vote, and hav­ing al­ready lost, for sure, two of the 52 Repub­li­can se­na­tors: Su­san Collins of Maine among moder­ates and Rand Paul of Ken­tucky among the zanier right-wingers.

Never one for step­ping out boldly or oth­er­wise on pol­icy, Booz­man hid from a colum­nist who wanted to ask him how he felt in his own mind and by his own ini­tia­tive about this bill and the is­sue of Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion in his home state.

And then, on Mon­day night, two more Repub­li­can se­na­tors—Jerry Mo­ran of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah—re­vealed their op­po­si­tion, forc­ing Mc­Connell to pull down his bill and lift­ing Booz­man un­harmed from the vor­tex.

Booz­man’s cow­er­ing was re­warded. He—and Cot­ton—were spared choos­ing be­tween re­peal­ing and re­plac­ing and gut­ting their state.

Now we’ll never know, which prob­a­bly was their tac­tic all along. Other se­na­tors overtly rep­re­sented their states in the field of play. Our guys sat in the press box and watched the score­board.

Ear­lier Mon­day, be­fore the fa­tal blow, I’d sent an email to Booz­man’s press sec­re­tary, Pa­trick Creamer, ask­ing if he would ac­cept my phone call to his of­fice for a live voice-to-voice con­ver­sa­tion on the health-care bill. The staffer replied no.

To be pre­cise: He said the of­fice had put out a state­ment last week and that he had no up­dates be­yond that.

In other words, he’d be wash­ing his hair when I called.

I replied that, back in the day, a colum­nist might ac­tu­ally en­gage a politi­cian or his press aide in live hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and take a shot at fresh in­quiries on an is­sue that could in­form con­stituents, vot­ers, read­ers, peo­ple like that who once fac­tored into such equa­tions.

I didn’t get any re­sponse on that. Af­ter all, it wasn’t a ques­tion, but an old geezer’s ram­bling lamen­ta­tion about yes­ter­year.

But here’s the deal: Booz­man—and Cot­ton too—weren’t sim­ply stonewalling me. They were stonewalling you. They were stonewalling Arkansas. They were stonewalling their gover­nor. They were stonewalling the Arkansas Hospi­tal As­so­ci­a­tion, Arkansas Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal, UAMS, home-state med­i­cal providers gen­er­ally and home-state poor folks es­pe­cially.

Here was Booz­man’s last-op­er­a­tive state­ment be­fore Mon­day night’s col­lapse: He was en­cour­aged that ev­ery­body in the Repub­li­can cau­cus was “try­ing to get to 50.”

Got that? He pro­fessed to be em­pha­siz­ing get­ting to a place to pass the bill. He did not pro­fess to give a hoot about try­ing to change the Med­i­caid fund­ing for the good of his state be­fore he votes for it, though he may ac­tu­ally have been try­ing that, even as he was afraid to say so.

On this most im­por­tant is­sue to their state and na­tion, our U.S. se­na­tors be­haved timidly when the op­por­tu­nity was ripe for them to be­have boldly.

If Mc­Connell had to get 50 votes, mean­ing he couldn’t spare ei­ther Booz­man or Cot­ton, then both were in a po­si­tion to stand up for their state, its gover­nor, its hos­pi­tals and its abun­dance of work­ing poor peo­ple.

They, not Mo­ran and Lee, could have been the ones to pull the plug.

But Booz­man doesn’t pull plugs. He just sits in the dark when some­one else does.

Booz­man’s stated pri­or­ity was to “get to 50,” not to make “50” come to him and his state.

Cot­ton’s pri­or­ity is clearer. It’s to keep this health care in­con­ve­nience from get­ting in the way of a high pro­file else­where in ser­vice to his Clin­tonesque am­bi­tion for the pres­i­dency.

While he was de­clin­ing to take a pub­lic po­si­tion on his state’s health care sit­u­a­tion, his of­fice was send­ing a half-dozen news re­leases a day about his speak­ing to na­tional groups on de­fense is­sues. And he was go­ing on the ra­dio with con­ser­va­tive ad­mirer Hugh He­witt, who didn’t care any more about Arkansas than Cot­ton does.

With six elec­toral votes Cot­ton can take for granted when the time comes, Arkansas shouldn’t count on a lot of cham­pi­oning from him.

Will Booz­man and Cot­ton now vote for or against Mc­Connell’s tac­tic of a bill to re­peal Oba­macare at a fu­ture sun­set­ted date and get it re­placed some­how by some­thing by then? At this point, who knows? And who much cares?

They’re not fac­tors in this de­bate. Se­na­tors from other states do­ing real work in be­half of those states—they’ll de­cide that.

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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