- Associated Press - Friday, January 30, 2015

SPARTA, Tenn. (AP) - As Gov. Bill Haslam barnstormed the state to promote his Insure Tennessee proposal, he voiced frustration over a series of what he’s called red herrings thrown up by his opponents.

The Republican governor met with more than 100 lawmakers to tout the program that would cover 280,000 low-income Tennesseans. Many of the same questions were raised by lawmakers: Can we trust federal government? Can we get out of the plan if it becomes too expensive for the state? Is this really different than the Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama’s health care law?

Haslam’s answer was an emphatic yes, and he argues the plan would ultimately make health care more affordable.

But as lawmakers head into a special session on Monday, many Republicans - including House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville - remain noncommittal about going along with a plan that would have state hospitals cover the $74 million state share to draw $2.8 billion in federal money.

“It’s no secret that a lot of people in Tennessee, on anything they think is Obamacare they’re going to be very nervous about,” Haslam told reporters after a visit to Sparta on Thursday. “But I honestly think this is very different. This is not Medicaid as we’ve known it. And it’s my job to make this case.”

Haslam has acknowledged he will need all Democrats on board for the measure to have a chance to pass, and finding the remaining Republicans to help guide it through committee and floor votes will be a challenge.

Several GOP lawmakers aren’t even interested in a debate. A plot is underfoot to call for an adjournment almost as soon as the session begins.

That move would take a simple majority of 50 House members to succeed. Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, said that even though he opposes the proposal, he favors a full hearing rather than swift adjournment.

“I hope nobody does it, but I’m guessing somebody will,” Durham said, adding he’d vote for it if it comes up.

Statehouse hearings this week illustrated the unease with which many Republicans approach the deal, and some operatives warn of political consequences of going along with Haslam’s plan.

“Legislators who vote for it are playing with political fire,” said Josh Thomas, a former campaign consultant to House Republicans. “It is a poisonous issue.”

Thomas pointed to neighboring Arkansas, where several Republicans and rural Democrats who voted Medicaid expansion drew election challengers and lost. Arkansas lawmakers are nevertheless on the verge of extending Medicaid expansion for another year.

Opponents liken the debate to a state income tax proposal in Tennessee more than a decade ago, in which popular second-term Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, went against the wishes of many in his own party.

Many lawmakers who supported the failed bid either retired or were later defeated, and the levy has become viewed as the third rail of Tennessee politics. Voters last year approved a constitutional amendment banning the Legislature from enacting an income tax.

Former conservative talk show host Steve Gill, who is now a political consultant working with the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity, questioned the political wisdom of Haslam’s reliance on Democrats to pass the Medicaid measure.

“Dragging the bloody carcass across the finish line with 26 Democrats and the minority of the Republican caucus may be a win now,” Gill said, but he suggested that the potential political blowback could be swift for Republicans who go along.

“That’s not going to be a good play,” he said.


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