PHOENIX - A historic vote on whether to embrace a signature part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul is expected Thursday in the Arizona Senate, with conservative Republicans opposed to the expanding the state's Medicaid program facing off against moderates in their own party and Democrats.
Republican Senate President Andy Biggs is fiercely opposed to expanding Medicaid to 300,000 more poor Arizonans, but has apparently been outmaneuvered by expansion supporters in his Republican caucus, who are expected to force the vote. The Senate's 13 Democrats support the plan and enough of the 17 GOP senators back it that passage appears likely.
But Biggs is unlikely to go down without a fight, vowing to use every procedural tool in his arsenal as president to try to prevent the approval. The fight will likely come during a long day of debate on a just-released budget plan that Biggs is allowing to move forward.
Before the floor session, majority Republicans debated the issue among themselves during a heated caucus during which one GOP senator accused an expansion supporter of being disloyal to fellow Republicans.
The House will likely take up the budget and the expected Medicaid attachment next week if it passes the Senate. Its fate is less sure there as conservatives rally in opposition.
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer shocked many when she announced in January she wanted to expand Medicaid to 300,000 additional poor Arizonans after opposed Obama's health care overhaul for years. The Medicaid issue has divided the Legislature for months and led to a stalemate that was finally broken this week when Biggs allowed the budget bills to proceed.
Supporters are expected to force the vote by tacking the measure onto a budget bill. They're led by Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, the chamber's majority leader. McComish said Wednesday he'll sponsor the Medicaid amendment, breaking with Biggs.
"We have a difference of opinion," McComish said. "He opposes the Medicaid expansion, and I support it."
McComish said he believes the amendment will pass the Senate, then face a more difficult challenge in the House.
"I think there are the votes in the House to pass it," he said Wednesday. "We'll see how it is handled in the House. It has to go through House Appropriations, so there's a lot of steps and therefore a lot of pitfalls along the way."
Medicaid expansion is a top priority for the Democratic caucus, said Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, the minority leader.
"That has to be done this session," she said. "Right now it's kind of `hold your breath.' But the direction the arrow is pointing in is that it will be done."
Brewer has made the expansion her No. 1 priority for the annual legislative session.