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Medicaid expansion blows up in Virginia

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A Democrat senator’s surprise resignation could resolve Virginia’s budget showdown by undercutting Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s bid to expand Medicaid.

“This is not necessarily the death knell, but the governor’s plan was rushed to the emergency room today,” said Steve Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

The departure of Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Tazewell, gives Republicans a 20-19 majority in the Senate. And the Capitol swirled with speculation about his reasons.

Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw, of Springfield, tamped down conspiracy theories that Republicans gave Puckett a golden parachute to leave.

“The Republicans are not authorized to make a deal. They’re as shocked as we are,” Saslaw told Watchdog.

Despite GOP jubilation over regaining control of the Senate — at least until a special election is called — Saslaw vowed that Medicaid expansion will remain part of the budget.

“Our goal is to settle this budget — with Medicaid in it,” he said.

Three Senate Republicans — Emmett Hanger, Walter Stosch and John Watkins — support expanding Medicaid to 400,000 Virginians. Watkins wrote the “Marketplace Virginia” plan adopted by the Senate.

But Puckett’s departure shuffles the political deck. Hanger, Stosch and Watkins are up for election next year in GOP districts where voters take a dim view of Medicaid expansion — as do all other Republican senators.

Meanwhile, the July 1 state budget deadline looms.

“It’s a bombshell,” Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said of Puckett’s retirement. “It doesn’t kill Medicaid expansion … but we lose control of the process. The tide has clearly turned.”

The Senate will reconvene at 5 p.m. Thursday. GOP lawmakers reportedly are ready to pass a “clean budget” that does not expand Medicaid.

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