RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Gov. Terry McAuliffe blamed the tea party Friday after the GOP-controlled General Assembly passed a state budget aimed at ensuring the Democratic governor cannot expand Medicaid without legislative approval.
Speaking to reporters in Richmond after a ceremonial bill signing inside a Habitat for Humanity project house, the governor said the conservative faction of the Republican party was now in charge of the state legislature. He said U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprise loss to a tea party backed candidate in the GOP primary Tuesday has moved Republican lawmakers further to the right.
"The tea party took control of the General Assembly last night," McAuliffe said. "Plain and simple."
All eyes are now on McAuliffe to see what he does with the budget and how he responds to a major setback of one of the top priorities of his young administration.
The Affordable Care Act allows states to expand Medicaid eligibility to low-income residents with the federal government paying for most of the expense. Democrats largely favor expansion, saying that would help the working poor, while Republicans argue the state can't afford a large increase of a costly entitlement program.
McAuliffe has pledged to expand Medicaid in Virginia and spent several months in a standoff with Republicans over whether expansion should be included in a state budget.
The surprise resignation of Democratic Sen. Phil Puckett on Monday flipped control of the state Senate to Republicans and helped end the standoff in the General Assembly. On Thursday, after hours of internal GOP wrangling, lawmakers passed a budget that included an amendment insisted on by conservatives that strengthens the General Assembly's ability to block funding for Medicaid expansion.
McAuliffe's office issued a statement soon after the budget passed saying "this fight is far from over." It didn't make clear what his next moves would be.
The governor said Friday he has not decided whether to sign, veto or try and amend the budget. He will have seven days to act once he's formally presented the budget next week.
Republicans have expressed concern that McAuliffe may try to expand Medicaid by executive order. The governor hasn't ruled anything out, but there's no obvious path forward for McAuliffe to expand Medicaid unilaterally that doesn't involve potential serious legal, as well as political, challenges.
Some of the governor's allies advised Friday against go-it-alone approach.
"The better way would still be to go through a legislative process," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a former Virginia governor said in a TV interview.
Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, one of a handful of Republicans favoring a modified Medicaid expansion plan, urged McAuliffe not to act alone and expand Medicaid. Hanger said the governor should instead spend his energy growing a wider base of supporters for expansion to include House Republicans.
"He really will be confronted with problems down the road if we don't address where the opposition is," said Hanger.