- Associated Press - Thursday, January 8, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has made a habit of being elsewhere the last three times President Barack Obama has visited Tennessee. But on Friday, just as Haslam prepares to sell the GOP-controlled legislature on Medicaid expansion, the governor plans to be front and center with the Democratic president when he visits Knoxville.

Haslam insists he’s not worried about any political ramifications from appearing alongside Obama, noting that the president is coming to Tennessee to highlight the state’s free community college program.

State Republicans have spent years vilifying Obama and his health care policies, and legislators last year enacted a law requiring their approval for any Medicaid deal. It was dubbed the “Stop Obamacare Act.”

Haslam, about to embark on his second term, is safe politically - but the same cannot be said of his agenda.

In November, he won re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote, and a month later he was named chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Still, he faces what is likely to be his toughest legislative session yet, with outcome of several key initiatives likely to set the tone for the rest of his time in office.

The governor has called a special session next month in which he hopes to persuade skeptical members of his own party to approve a deal to cover 200,000 more low-income people using money available under Obama’s health care law. He stresses that his proposal is not straight Medicaid expansion because it includes what he calls a “market-based” approach of vouchers to buy private insurance, co-pays and incentives for healthy living.

GOP hardliners are already lining up against the plan, and Haslam earlier this week acknowledged that he will need all 31 Democrats in the state Legislature to pass his plan.

In the regular session to follow, Haslam will try to avert efforts to dismantle Common Core education standards, another initiative embraced by Obama, and could have to tackle efforts to raise the state’s gas tax for the first time in 25 years - both already generating skepticism from fellow Republicans.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said Haslam’s appearance with Obama could have a negative impact on the governor’s Medicaid proposal.

“Does it help or hurt? It hurts,” Ramsey said. “It doesn’t help anything.”

State House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh said he’s “certainly worried” about political fallout.

“But I hope political pettiness is overcome by overwhelmingly positive aspects of the governor and the Legislature taking this action to insure 200,000 Tennesseans,” he said.

If approved, Tennessee would become the 28th state plus Washington, D.C., to expand Medicaid, and the 10th initiated by a Republican governor.

Haslam said the president’s visit shouldn’t affect his efforts.

“We’ve made community college free to every graduating high schooler, the first state to do that,” Haslam told reporters earlier this week. “The fact that you have the president of the United States coming to your state to say this is a good thing, and it’s something we should have more of across the country, that can’t help but be a good message for the state.”

The president visited Nashville twice last year, to speak about his executive action on immigration in December and about education at a high school in January. Obama also spoke at an Amazon.com warehouse in Chattanooga in 2013.

Haslam and Republican U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander steered clear of the president on each of those occasions, and last appeared together with Obama in Tennessee when he visited Memphis in 2011 to meet with flood victims and speak at a high school graduation ceremony.

Haslam has said scheduling conflicts prevented him from meeting Obama on the previous visits, noting that he has met with the president several times at the White House.

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