by David Ramsey
Monday, 9:50 a.m. (90%):
The bill passes 77-23. It's on to the Senate, where it's thought they have the votes. Looks very likely that the "private option" will be enacted in Arkansas.
Monday, 9:25 a.m. :
Debate has started. Rep. Bell, speaking against, says the opponents of the bill have been in tears because of "threats and intimidation."
"When you look deep in your heart, do you want to be on the side of threats and intimidation or do you want to vote what's in your heart," he said. "You know what's the right thing to do."
Rep. Collins says he agrees that lawmakers should vote what's in their heart. He says that voting NO is a vote for D.C. Obamacare, voting YES is a vote for the Arkansas private option.
Rep. Payton says he lost friends and neighbors guarding the nation "against threats on foreign shores...Now there's a threat right here in these halls." He says that GIF money is being used to coerce votes.
Rep. Burris objected to the notion that YES votes are having their arms twisted, saying he had fought against GIF shenanigans. He said neither side should attack the others' motives.
Rep. Alexander says he decided two weeks ago that the private option was the best path forward but was voting NO because he said constituents hadn't had enough time to hear about the policy.
Rep. Kim Hammer, undecided as of last night, spoke against the bill. He said 60 percent of the town hall last night was in favor of the bill but he had to think of 100 percent. He said, "While it is a good bill, it could be greater with a few more stopgaps and trigger points."
Rep. Bruce Westerman accuses some unnamed legislators of voting against their conscience. He also said he'd stand up to big bad bloggers. This practice round of his stump speech for Congress is well written but the delivery needs work.
Woah! And Westerman just accused colleagues of being Judas Iscariot. Nice.
Also speaking for the bill: Rep. John Edwards, a rare voice from the Democratic side of the aisle; Rep. Sue Scott, previously a NO (with the best line of the debate: "when I look at the numbers, I see faces with those numbers"); Rep. Biviano; and Rep. Andy Davis.
Monday, 9:00 a.m. (50%)::
Hearing that they have the votes. We'll see.
Max notes that Rep. Jonathan Barnett's bill on diverting general revenue to highways is on the Transportation committee agenda today. Horse trade? (Lobbyist Robert Coon tweets that this is in fact routine: "You get two chances to run a bill. It stays on the agenda until that has happened or you pull it."
***Previous entries after the jump. House debating now.
Monday, 8:45 a.m. (49%):
Proponents are acting awfully confident, but I can't bring myself to go even odds still six votes short. The most likely scenario is that the vote will be short this morning (seems like magic number is locked at 72) and then they'll adjourn and try again either later this morning or this afternoon.
Monday, 8:20 a.m. (40%):
Hearing from vote-counters that they think they have 75. Also hearing from both sides that there are a few that will likely move to whichever side appears to have the votes, so the final count might be less close (on either end) than we're expecting.
Monday, 11:30 p.m. (33%) :
Yet another town hall tonight, this one in Benton and hosted by Rep. Kim Hammer and Rep. Ann Clemmer. Lots of speakers: on the pro side, Rep. John Burris and Sen. David Sanders, along with Medicaid Director Andy Allison; speaking against were conservative advocate Dan Greenberg and former Romney healthcare advisor Avik Roy (an AFP guest). Not sure why they didn't toss a current lawmaker like Westerman, who was in attendance, on the anti- team.
At one point, in what almost seemed like a plant to give me material, an angry man asked how the "private option" wasn't just Obamacare and then stormed out of the room before hearing the response. I took some notes on a variety of things said that I thought were wrong, or right, or somewhere in between. But honestly the big impression I got is that at this point in the discussion, it's all so much noise. Town halls are great, don't get me wrong. But when you have hyper-informed lawmakers throwing numbers back and forth, it's time to vote. As Hammer said, this has been "discussed, fussed, and cussed to death."
Two very general reactions: Opponents of the "private option" have a strong status-quo bias to their arguments, imagining dozens of law changes the feds could possibly enact some day that would impact state legislation, all horrible — so best to do nothing at all. Of course anticipating possible changes is important, but this frame reaches a point of absurdity; given the Supremacy Clause any state law could maybe some day be ruined! Lots of talk like "if you trust the federal government you should love this law." Heh. The other thing that stuck out is that the pundits' complaints about the bill were really at the margins, with lots of praise for aspects they liked. Roy several times said he agreed with 75 or 80 percent of this or that feature or argument. The difference seemed to be between conservative lawmakers pushing the bounds of the possible as far as they possibly could to create an experiment in Arkansas, and the pundits insisting that the experiment wasn't enough to their liking to be worth trying.
What's that all mean? Not much. Ultimately whether the "private option" happens or not is in the hands of legislators pretty unlikely to be swayed by one more argument (on either side) among the hundreds they've heard. Rep. Kim Hammer, Rep. Ann Clemmer and Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson all said they were undecided. Clemmer and Hutchinson both seemed to be leaning YES but hard to know. Hutchinson told the audience that tax cuts were unlikely to happen without the "private option."
For whatever reason, legislators in favor of the "private option" seemed very optimistic about tomorrow. Still seems like a hard road to 75, but we'll see.
Monday, 7:00 p.m. (25%):
The "private option" is certainly on life support but it's not dead yet. The House will convene tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. and try again on the appropriation. Three didn't vote yesterday — Rep. Anne Clemmer and Rep. Stephanie Malone were out of the room; Rep. Mary Lou Slinkard voted present but apparently intended to (or intends to) vote "aye." The general thinking is that those three are being counted in the YES group, which would put the vote total at 72, which was what most vote counters were saying in the final hours.
There was some doom and gloom at the Capitol among some expansion proponents, though many insiders are holding out hope. It's thought that there are around 10 legislators that could plausibly switch their vote. Some are saying they want more time with constituents (Rep. Randy Alexander is on record supporting the bill but still voted NO because of a desire for a few more weeks of chatting with the folks). Some support the policy but have political fears. And rumors continue that some legislators — including Rep. Terry Rice, Rep. Jonathan Barnett, and Rep. Les Carnine, all pro-business Republicans who have been happy to accept federal money in the past — have been voting NO due to a personal dispute with House Speaker Davy Carter.
We'll see. I've heard a very wide range of opinions about where we stand this evening; we could put the Expand-o-meter number anyone where from 0 to 60%. One thing we can report with certainty is that journalists are by nature pessimistic and politicians by nature optimistic!
Monday, 1:30 p.m. (45%):
Sounds more and more like they won't have the votes today although very hard to predict last-minute whipping. That doesn't mean it's over. If they don't make it today, they would likely run it again tomorrow. The potential connection to tax cuts would then likely loom large, with time running out in the session.
Monday, 1:10 p.m. (45%) :
Obviously we're at the point where rumors are mostly bluster, but am hearing that two votes were picked up over lunch, putting the count at 74. Sounds like if they fall short today, they'll try again tomorrow.
Monday, 1:00 p.m. (41%):
Questions have started to float about whether they are running the appropriation today given the uncertainty about whether they have the votes. All indications are that they will.
Monday, 12:30 p.m. (41%):
Still hard to believe that Rep. Alexander is going to vote NO on a huge bill that he is on record as supporting. But that is apparently his plan (he wants two weeks to make the pitch to constituents). Have to think there will be some public shaming of him for voting against his conscience during the floor debate if he's a deciding vote.
Monday, 11:20 a.m. (48%):
Rep. Nate Bell will vote NO. He has a long explanation of why on his Facebook page. Bell acknowledges that turning down the private option will hurt the state, but he cannot abide any federal deficit spending. In this case, the "private option" will have no meaningful impact on the debt but it does of course amount to accepting spending from the feds, and that's a principled line in the sand for Bell. With margins this tight, this is a big blow for expansion proponents.
Bell's wife has worked for Americans for Prosperity, a vocal opponent of the private option.
Hearing from the House floor and multiple sources that the count is at 72.
Monday, 11:15 a.m. (53%):
Rep. Bruce Westerman had a press conference just now at the Capitol, ostensibly to present HB 1965 — as we've noted below, it's just a poison pill to provide cover for the "do nothing" option — though Westerman spent most of his time re-hashing his case against the "private option." In fact, he said that he would vote against his own bill if it were up today. His main argument was that solutions to the expansion question needed to be "properly vetted." Asked what this vetting would entail, Westerman noted that the "private option" bill would need federal approval (of course, this is in the bill itself, which is structured as a take-it-or-leave it offer to the feds) and said that the "private option" idea was only a few months old. Delay delay delay. And of course, as Westerman knows, waiting a year would mean that the state leaves hundreds of millions of dollars on the table.
Westerman brought up a talking point that he peddled over the weekend — that somehow Congress was going to take away the insurance premium tax that would yield hundreds of millions in additional revenue under the "private option" because of additional plans in the exchange. Asked how Congress could legislate against a state tax on private companies operating on the exchange — a tax that is the standard mechanism for funding the exchanges, and will also be in place on the rest of the exchange in Arkansas and in states throughout the country — Westerman did not have an answer. Also worth noting that this issue was specifically brought up by state officials to CMS, which gave clear approval to the premium tax.
I noted to Westerman that his bill systematically violated the CMS rules and federal law, making it dead on arrival for the feds. He responded that this was a matter of opinion. Not so, but spinners gotta spin. (Westerman's move is even more blatant than Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, rumored to have intentionally sought a no from HHS. Haslam was at least sly enough to do so before the CMS memo that articulated that his ask was a no-go.)
Westerman said that he believes "the numbers are there to block the appropriation" and said he was actively speaking to other members to try to defeat the private option. He said that a number of legislators are interested in signing on as co-sponsors to HB 1965, so the "cover" angle may have some sway. I asked Westerman whether he was planning to run for Congress. He gave the standard "I'm thinking about getting through this legislative session" answer.
Monday, 9:45 a.m. (53%):
Per John Brummett on Twitter, Rep. Randy Alexander is for it but saying he needs two weeks to speak to constituents. The folks at his town hall were apparently evenly split after hearing a discussion of the issue, which some thought would be enough to persuade Alexander to vote for a bill he believes to be the right thing to do. Would he actually be the deciding NO vote on the biggest issue facing the legislature in decades, simply because the Ledge ran out of time? Lots of lawmakers chatting with Alexander on the House floor.
Meanwhile, I'm told that one of the legislators in the 75 count this morning is now leaning NO, so along with Alexander, the count may be down to 73.
Bell has made his decision and will post an announcement on his Facebook page around noon today. He called it "the toughest decision [he has} ever had to make."
Monday, 9:00 a.m. (58%):
Hearing from multiple sources this morning that there are 75 votes to get the "private option" passed right now, but things can change quickly. There remains no wiggle room, so wobbly votes will probably be getting an earful today.
Monday, 12:00 a.m. (53%):
On the eve of the vote, the general mood among observers the Expand-o-meter has heard from seems to lean toward passage. Still going to be very close.
One place that vote-counters will be watching closely is Rep. Nate Bell's Facebook page. Bell was leaning fairly strongly toward YES at the end of last week, but seems to have gone to bed a MAYBE tonight. He wrote on Facebook, "I am generally blacking out electronics and am spending this evening in study, prayer and thought as I make my final decision on tomorrow's vote."
Later, he added:
The #PO question can be boiled down to one moral dilemma. Do we choose what is best for the state and the state budget/economy or what is best for nation/fed budget/debt/deficit but damaging to the state. VERY difficult choice. Lots of short term pain and fallout without #PO.
Reasonable frame for a conservative like Bell worried about the debt. Of course the impact of the "private option" on the debt over the next ten years is less than a rounding error. Will legislators like Bell be willing to harm the interests of the state for an abstract principle about federal spending with no meaningful impact on the debt? We'll find out.
Here's a video of Bell's town hall meeting Saturday.
Sunday, 6:00 p.m. (50%):
Still looking like a toss-up this evening. Bruce "Do Nothing" Westerman announced just now that he will release details tomorrow morning on HB 1965, which is not an alternative to the private option as he will suggest, but a stunt to try to provide some phony political cover for the "do nothing" approach that Westerman is lobbying for. Westerman was careful to make sure the bill intentionally violated the key requirements of the CMS memo regarding "private option" plans, making it dead on arrival for the feds. Everyone knows this, but presumably the gimmick is to give cover for possible NO votes worried about the consequences coming if the state turns down the private option. Westerman (has he announced his run for Congress yet?) can pretend he offered an alternative, even though his bill would have the practical impact of a NO vote. The amusing part is that HB 1965 has many of the same features that Westerman has railed against all week in the "private option." He's in full whatever-works mode.
Meanwhile, rumors continue to float that there is a subset of legislators reluctant to vote for the "private option" because of personal opposition to Carter. Jason Tolbert tweeted tonight, "Hearing that the Deacons are working against the private option based on spite for Speaker Carter — sad if that is true." Remarkable to think that this policy impacting hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in the state — not to mention potentially impacting the national health policy debate for years to come — could come down to personal animus. Max suggested on the podcast that given the stakes, some of that may fade if they are very close to 75.
Sunday, 1:45 p.m. (50%):
At the Capitol last week, “what’s your count?” was the greeting instead of hello. There have been a lot of numbers thrown around in the last several months in the debate over healthcare coverage expansion, but now it comes down to two: 75 and 27. That's what it will take in the House and the Senate, respectively, to accept the federal funds to enact the "private option."
The House — generally considered the tougher climb — will vote in about 24 hours. What does the Expand-o-meter think? From Thursday afternoon on we've been stuck at 50 percent odds of reaching the super-majority. Everyone agrees that it will be extremely close, and most admit that no one really knows what will happen. The count was generally thought to be in the low 70s on Friday with the possibility of pushing it over the top, but a number of likely YES votes wanted the weekend to talk to constituents. According to numerous insiders, there are well over 75 who are convinced that the "private option" is the right policy, but a good portion are shaky because of political pressure or other factors. The presence of five to ten wobbly, unpredictable votes has made predictions change by the hour — one vote-counter described it as "trying to nail Jell-O to a wall." So while House Speaker Davy Carter sounds confident, it's looking like a down-to-the-wire tossup.
One promising piece of news for "private option" proponents did come in last night: Sen. Jason Rapert (thought to be a MAYBE) and Rep. Stephen Meeks (thought to be a NO) both announced that they would support the bill. Based on the Meeks announcement and various Twitter activity, it looks likely that the House could get to 75 at this moment, so the Expand-o-meter may be ticking up ... but again, we're at the stage where things change by the hour.
On that note, we'll be updating as rumors and announcements come in. Feel free to throw us news or tips in the comments.