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After losing control of Senate, Biggs looks on as new majority emerges

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, gestures as if to wonder what was going on May 16 when a coalition of fellow Republicans and Democrats joined forces to approve the expansion of Medicaid strongly supported by Gov. Jan Brewer. Biggs was among the majority of Republican senators who opposed the Medicaid plan. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The Arizona Senate’s passage of a budget plan that includes Medicaid expansion on May 16 was a tremendous victory for Gov. Jan Brewer, as well as the lawmakers who stuck their necks out for the governor — most notably Senate Majority Leader John McComish, who sponsored the amendment that added expansion to the budget plan.

It was an equally embarrassing defeat for Senate President Andy Biggs, who watched helplessly as a new majority emerged in his chamber. The coalition of Senate Democrats and five Republicans repeatedly voted down his attempts to defeat a budget plan as he lost control in the Committee of the Whole.

The divide in the majority party has some GOP lawmakers out for blood. Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, said there’s a strong desire among a majority of Senate Republicans to oust McComish, R-Phoenix, as majority leader. The same goes for Majority Whip Adam Driggs, a fellow Phoenix Republican who voted with McComish and three other GOP senators: Rich Crandall of Mesa, Steve Pierce of Prescott, and Bob Worsley of Mesa.

But making a quick, rash move for retribution could prove costly for Biggs as well. He finds himself in the minority in his chamber, at least for the time being. Melvin said he was concerned any efforts to oust McComish and Driggs could invite retaliation against the Senate president.

“No one in the Senate Republican caucus was there the last time a fracture of this magnitude happened,” said Stan Barnes, a lobbyist and former lawmaker. “This particular fracture is even more acute because the fracture leaves the Senate president divided from his majority leader and majority whip and in the minority. It’s a serious issue within the intra-caucus dynamic.”

Some political observers suggest the matter could be handled amicably, and that any hard feelings after a testy and contentious caucus meeting on May 16 could blow over.

Others suggest the ramifications of the budget deal could play out next year at the polls, or following the election in votes for new Senate leadership.

“It’s a pretty serious offense when you’re in leadership of the caucus and you don’t follow the caucus,” said Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber.

“But as to who initiates what, I don’t know. This is a whole new experience for me. There’s always chatter in the heat of the moment. I think when you get a chance to sit back and reflect, I’m not sure it’s going to be the same chatter tomorrow as it was yesterday.”

Republican backlash
Even as votes were being cast on the Senate floor during the budget debate, GOP lawmakers voting for Medicaid expansion were facing a backlash from angry Republican voters who promised to oust them from office in 2014.

Shane Wikfors, the conservative author of the blog Sonoran Alliance, tweeted May 16 that he would “seriously consider a run for #AZLD25 Senate in 2014,” the first real promise of a threat to unseat Worsley, the first-term senator who voted for expansion.

A.J. LaFaro, chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Committee, sent an email May 16 blasting McComish for his support of Medicaid expansion and for what LaFaro described as “rude and outrageous comments” at an LD18 Republican Party meeting and other comments insinuating that GOP precinct committeemen were “an insignificant minority.”

McComish said he doesn’t think there will be any ramifications from his vote and declined to comment further.

The Senate majority leader’s behavior “clearly demonstrates he needs to be removed from office,” LaFaro wrote.

LaFaro told the Arizona Capitol Times he has been in touch with GOP leadership throughout the county to begin searching for conservative recruits to challenge McComish and others in primary campaigns.

“An overwhelming majority of Republicans here in Arizona and the Republican Party nationwide are against Obamacare and Obamacare expansion… We have those five registered Republican senators ganging up with 13 Democrats in a historic, traitorous event on the floor of the Arizona Senate last week,” LaFaro said. “It was a mugging.”

Positive response
Pierce said the response he has received since voting for Medicaid expansion has been overwhelmingly positive. Emails thanking Pierce for his vote have outnumbered those chastising him by a 10-to-one margin, the senator said.

“It says in the Bible you’re supposed to help the needy, and I don’t see how any of them are trying to help out at all,” Pierce told the Capitol Times. “I have no fear about any of it. I feel like I sleep well at night. I made the right decision for the people of Arizona.”

Worsley may not be around to face a challenge in the primary election next fall. The Mesa Republican said he’s still mulling whether to run, but said the decision has nothing to do with his vote for Medicaid.

“My wife and I are discussing, do we run again the next time around?
This was intended to be a two-year stint, or service for two years, giving back to the community,” Worsley told the Capitol Times. “We may run again. At this point we intend to. There’s nothing that would cause me not to (run) based on this decision.

“I was calm in the decision, I am firm in the decision, I don’t regret the decision and I don’t really care if I’m primaried or if I have a short career here as a result of it,” he added. “It was the right decision.”

Crandall’s seat will be up for grabs next fall, as the senator previously announced plans to resign from office in August. If Worsley’s seat were to be open as well, Melvin said he hoped those lawmakers would be replaced by “more conservative Republicans.”
Melvin said he’s a firm believer that there are consequences for every action, suggesting that the consequences for betrayals by McComish and Driggs should be the removal of the duo from leadership.

But Melvin worried that any move to oust them would be met with retaliation from Senate Democrats, who could join with the scorned Senate Republicans and vote to remove Biggs as president.

“It’s not as straightforward as [McComish and Driggs],” Melvin said.
“It has ramifications on the president. And we think too much of him to expose him.”

Delayed consequences
If there are going to be consequences, it’ll likely happen months after the session ends or during the election in fall 2014, Crandell said. But he’s not sure if anything will happen at all.

“I would call it, in my opinion, probably a little more disappointment than anything, that you would roll your caucus, especially when you were elected on conservative principles,” Crandell said. “But they’re individuals, they’ve got to vote their conscience and that’s the way it needs to be.”

Few in the majority party seem to fault Biggs for what happened last week, though lobbyist Barry Aarons said some might question whether to vote for Biggs to remain Senate president again in 2014 if he is re- elected.

“I would imagine there are people on both sides of the Republican caucus, that there’s some dissatisfaction with the Senate president,” Aarons said. “Some of the more extreme conservatives are upset that he even allowed votes to come to the floor… if that musters up to the level of renewal, that I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see what happens the rest of the session and how he decides to lead.”

Biggs said that while he agrees with Melvin — there are always ramifications for one’s actions. He’s confident his district will continue to back him after the vote.

And he’s heard no chatter about plans to unseat McComish, Driggs or himself, Biggs said.

“They all understand very clearly my position on this, on the expansion. And I felt their support back in my district anyway,” Biggs said. “I’ve had a chance to go out and speak in some other places, and support seems pretty broad to me.”

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