During a campaign in which he needed to appeal to crossover voters, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards took care to keep his distance from his party’s leader.
Those days ended last week. Now safely sworn in and ready to get down to business, Edwards greeted President Barack Obama as he arrived in Baton Rouge, rode with him to his hotel and had a potentially fruitful conversation about how the federal government can help him achieve his goals, from easing Interstate 10 traffic congestion to expanding health insurance coverage for Louisiana’s working poor.
In fact, Obama came bearing what could turn out to be a heck of an inauguration gift: a proposal to make states like Louisiana eligible for three years of fully federally funded Medicaid expansion under his signature Affordable Care Act.
The new policy would amount to a fresh start for states like Louisiana that initially refused to expand Medicaid to cover those who make up to 138 percent of the official poverty level. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal, along with a number of other conservative governors, rejected the expansion, which was set to be 100 percent federally funded for the law’s first three years and as much as 90 percent thereafter. By the time Edwards ordered Medicaid expanded on Tuesday, just 24 hours after being sworn in, the first two years already had passed, leaving Louisiana eligible for just the final year of full funding.
But here’s the rub: Obama can’t deliver on the offer without cooperation from the GOP-controlled Congress. That’s where Edwards’ fellow Louisiana politicians come in.
Shortly after joining Obama for the Thursday morning town hall meeting at McKinley High School, where the president announced his proposal, Edwards told a luncheon hosted by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry that he’d seek support for the proposal from the state’s congressional delegation.
Yet most of the state’s members of Congress are Republican, and not one of the GOP members counts himself as a supporter of the president’s health care law. In fact, all are part of a majority that has spent the past couple of years trying to either repeal or undermine the law, rather than mending its problems.
Several members have gone on record criticizing Edwards for accepting Medicaid expansion. U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany called the move “irresponsible,” and U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a physician like Boustany, took to Twitter to argue that the program is too flawed to expand without instituting major reforms. So supporting Obama’s funding proposal is likely to be a pretty hard sell for them and their fellow Louisiana Republicans.
But it shouldn’t be. Whether or not they like the health care law, it’s the law of the land, and there are strong arguments in favor of helping to ease the cost of complying with it in a state that’s facing a massive budget shortfall.
There’s also a precedent for putting aside opposition to the overall law and supporting something that would make it better, courtesy of none other than Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Edwards’ vanquished runoff opponent for governor.
In 2009, when Congress was fighting its way through passage of the controversial bill, Vitter worked with Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski on an amendment guaranteeing free annual mammograms for women 40 and older. Vitter, who often talks of how his wife Wendy, as a young child, lost her mother to breast cancer, was one of just three Republicans to back the measure.
That didn’t make him a supporter of the law. In fact, Vitter would go on to oppose the bill’s eventual passage and criticize it at every turn.
Instead, the move served as a practical acknowledgement that members of Congress should try to make the best of even those laws they don’t like, if their constituents can benefit. The same goes for Vitter’s willingness to expand Medicaid in Louisiana if he’d been elected governor, albeit under more stringent conditions than Edwards demanded.
There’s no doubt at all that Louisiana taxpayers would benefit from Obama’s newest offer.
The question for Louisiana’s congressional Republicans, then, is what could — or should — be more important than that?
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.