Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin schedules vote on budget, Medicaid

PHOENIX - Republican House Speaker Andy Tobin on Tuesday took up the $8.8 billion state budget passed by the Arizona Senate that includes Medicaid expansion and assigned it to a committee for hearings, with a final vote by the full House possible by next week.

Tobin's actions come as he acknowledged that his effort to shape Gov. Jan Brewer's Medicaid expansion proposal to his own liking have failed. He opposed the governor's plan and said he still does, but wouldn't specifically say if he would vote against it.

"I've never supported the governor's Medicaid expansion," Tobin said.

Minority Democrats in the House and a handful of moderate Republicans who support Brewer's plan to embrace a signature part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law said they believe there are enough votes to pass the budget with Medicaid.

Tobin's decision to call off talks with Brewer on Medicaid comes three weeks after a similar coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate passed the budget largely crafted by Senate President Andy Biggs over his objections. Biggs vehemently opposed Brewer's plan to expand Medicaid to an additional 300,000 poor Arizonans, but supporters were able to tack it onto a budget bill and get it passed.

Tobin assigned the package of 10 Senate budget bills to the Appropriations Committee and expects the House to finish work on the entire package soon, possibly by Monday. He had said in an interview last week that he wanted a clear agreement with the governor before he moved the budget and Medicaid but conceded Tuesday that was not possible.

"The counteroffers that we heard from her staff were so far away from where I was at, that it just became apparent that because you have to have Medicaid with the budget that the time was running out. I didn't think there was enough room to negotiate a closer deal."

Minority Democrats expressed confidence that Medicaid expansion will pass.

"The votes are there," minority whip Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said. "So yes, we anticipate it to pass. It ain't done till it's done, it ain't over till it's over, but we're very confident it's going to pass."

Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, a moderate who is believed to support Medicaid but hasn't publically said so, said he believes a path to passage is there.

"I believe there's an opportunity to get it out of the House," Robson said.

With 24 Democrats in the House all on board, just seven of 36 Republicans need to support the Medicaid bill for it to pass.

But a floor fight is expected, with maneuvering on the budget package hard to assess in advance.

Tobin in recent weeks failed in an effort to persuade fellow lawmakers to send Medicaid expansion to the voters for approval. He was negotiating to get provisions in the expansion plan that would ease his fears about costs being passed on to businesses and limit the power of the director of the state Medicaid plan to both set hospital reimbursement rates and control a hospital assessment that will pay the state's expansion costs.

Tobin also believes the Senate's budget contains too much spending and that it doesn't repay any of the state debt built up during the recession. He said Tuesday there will be significant changes to the Senate-passed budget but declined to outline them.

Medicaid still faces a significant challenge from conservative Republicans, who are philosophically opposed to the expansion and the health care law.

"We are going to try to stop it," said Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff. "Whether we have the numbers is the other question. I don't know if we have the numbers to stop it. But we are going to continue to fight."

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