RICHMOND — Having collected less than 50 percent of the vote in the Virginia governor's race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe can hardly claim a mandate and now faces the tough task of filling in the details of a vague political agenda in the face of a strong Republican-controlled legislature and a Democratic Party for which he has spent most of his life working in various unelected roles.
Mr. McAuliffe on the campaign trail touted a laundry list of spending priorities ranging from increased teacher pay to more money for tourism, workforce development and the state's community colleges.
But Republican legislative leaders sent strong signals Wednesday that the governor-elect's priorities face obstacles when they reach a General Assembly effectively controlled by the GOP.
"Throughout the now-concluded campaign, we have seen nothing but vague promises from candidate McAuliffe," House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, said in a statement. "I am eager to hear what substantive policy proposals a Governor McAuliffe will offer. While we are not certain what his legislative priorities are, we hope that we can find common ground on the issues Virginians care about."
The mechanism Mr. McAuliffe often cited for funding his spending initiatives was an expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the needy. It was a central issue in the governor's race against Republican Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II — and it faces stiff opposition.
"The language in the Virginia code is pretty specific," the Republican speaker said in an interview Wednesday, pointing out that significant reforms are needed before the program is expanded to allow up to 400,000 low-income Virginians to get access to health care. "It's not going to be something that gets done in the first month or probably even the first year."
The General Assembly set up a panel of five members of the House of Delegates and five members of the state Senate to address the issue. At least three members of each group must sign off on any changes to the program before they advance.
Mr. McAuliffe said Wednesday in Richmond that he has started reaching out to members of the General Assembly and has been "warmly received," but that he had not spoken with Mr. Howell.
The Democrat sold the expansion of the program as a job creator and economic development engine on the campaign trail and promised that expanding coverage would save the state $500 million a year.
But Republicans remain deeply skeptical that the federal government will keep up its end of the bargain. Under President Obama's health care overhaul, the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cost of states' expansion of the program through 2017, after which the subsidies will wind down to 90 percent.
"This is bringing Virginians' taxpayer dollars back to Virginia," Mr. McAuliffe said Wednesday. "I know we have work to do, obviously, on bending that cost curve, but this is why we all need to sit at a table together, Democrats and Republicans. The lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, supports the Medicaid expansion, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce supports the Medicaid expansion — it is the right thing to do. We have to do it smartly."
But Mr. McAuliffe has only a single, non-consecutive term to accomplish any goals he might have. Other than locating unspecified government efficiencies, the Medicaid expansion is the only source of revenue he has hinted at for other priorities such as expanding pre-K education and reforming the state's Standards of Learning tests.
The wounds from one of the nastiest statewide races in recent memory are still raw for many. As of Wednesday afternoon, Mr. McAuliffe had not spoken with Mr. Cuccinelli after the election, the Democrat said.
Still, in addition to thanking his own supporters and volunteers for all their hard work, he offered an olive branch to those who didn't cast votes for him and said he plans to be a governor for all Virginians.
"To those who did not support me let me just say that I will get up every single day working for you," he said. "I will do everything I can to earn your trust and respect during the next four years."
Pending the outcome of a few special elections in the state Senate, Democrat Ralph S. Northam's win in the lieutenant governor's race could give his party a leg up in the legislature's upper chamber, which is divided 20-20 between the parties. Republicans, though, contend that the committee structures that give them an advantage in determining what legislation reaches the Senate floor were set at the start of the 2012 session and will remain until a new Senate is elected.
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