- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - New ads funded by groups on both sides of the debate over expanding Medicaid appear to be narrowly aimed at one person: House Speaker William J. Howell.

The focus on Howell underscores what is likely a pivotal role that he will play in deciding the outcome. The Democrat-controlled Senate and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe supporting expanding the Medicaid rolls. But the Republican Howell, and his colleagues in the GOP-controlled house, have remained resolutely opposed.

Democrats want Virginia’s $96 billion, two-year state budget to include expanded eligibility to some 400,000 low-income residents. Republicans want a budget with no Medicaid expansion. State government could shut down if the impasse isn’t resolved - and a budget passed - by July 1.

Campaign for Liberty, which is affiliated with former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, is buying Internet ads, sending emails and doing robocalls in an effort to make sure that the Republican speaker maintains his opposition to expansion.

“We’re worried that Speaker Howell might cave on the issue of expanding Medicaid, so we’re trying to put the pressure on him,” said spokeswoman Megan Stiles.

She did not say how much the group was spending on the effort.

Earlier this month, the liberal advocacy group Moveon.org announced a five-figure ad buy for a parody television ad mocking Howell for not supporting Medicaid expansion. The ad features actor David Moscow, who starred in the 1988 movie “Big” featuring Tom Hanks.

“Apparently Speaker Howell doesn’t care,” Moscow says in the ad.

Through a spokesman, Howell declined to comment. But he has vocally refused to support expansion, and his Democratic counterparts have been equally insistent.

“I can’t be emphatic enough, we will not vote for a budget nor will the governor sign a budget that doesn’t have some form of expansion,” Democratic Senate Leader Richard L. Saslaw said Friday during a conference call with reporters.

McAuliffe and other Democrats say expansion is in Virginia’s best interests, particularly because the federal government has promised to pay for the bulk of it under the Affordable Care Act.

But Republicans oppose a large-scale increase of an entitlement program and say the state’s current Medicaid program is already growing at an unsustainable rate. Republicans also point to the flawed rollout out of other aspects of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul as reason why Virginia should be wary.

Campaign for Liberty and Moveon.org are not the only outside groups active in Virginia’s Medicaid debate.

Americans for Prosperity, a tea party nonprofit that’s backed by conservative billionaire activists Charles and David Koch have been active opponents of Medicaid expansion. The group has paid for statewide radio ads warning against Medicaid expansion.

Several other groups with ties to wealthy liberal activists and national labor unions have actively supported Medicaid expansion with a petition drive and by organizing rallies.

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