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Tobin fighting to hold caucus together, keep the budget in GOP handsh

House Speaker Andy Tobin (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

A fight is brewing in the House that Speaker Andy Tobin didn’t ask for, and he’s trying to keep his caucus members from tearing each other apart over Medicaid expansion – and stop the budget from getting hijacked.

House Republicans are deeply divided over Medicaid expansion. Many are ready to side with the Democratic caucus to approve the governor’s legacy legislation to expand the state’s Medicaid system to cover people at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

A bipartisan coalition made up of roughly three-fourths Democrats may approve the health care section of the budget, which contains Medicaid expansion. But Tobin is trying to ensure the same coalition doesn’t pass all 10 budget bills through the Republican controlled House, and conservative Republicans aren’t cut out of the budget process – as was the case in the Senate.

Tobin knows he has a rocky road ahead of him, and said he will handle the feat “with gentle love and care.”

Medicaid expansion is a separate component of the budget. House Majority Whip Rick Gray said GOP leadership has discussed scheduling the vote on the proposal for a different day than the rest of the budget to allow a cooling-off period.

A divisive floor debate on the issue is unavoidable, but everyone seems to agree it is unlikely he will get “rolled” in the process, as happened to Senate President Andy Biggs when he and the conservative wing of his party ended up voting against a budget Biggs had crafted.

“You always have those risks (of the coalition taking over the entire budget process), but I’m hoping that I’ll have a better budget for my majority than the president had for his majority,” Tobin said.

One reason Tobin doesn’t appear to be in danger of getting rolled is he has remained open to Medicaid expansion, if not totally supportive of the idea.

While Biggs vowed to fight the proposal to the bitter end, Tobin has been working on a plan to meet the governor half-way and send the proposal to the ballot. Failing that, he has been working to add transparency to the proposal, which he hopes will make it more palatable to his fellow Republicans.

Rep. Heather Carter, R-Carefree, who is charged with running the Medicaid expansion plan through the House on the governor’s behalf, said despite the contentiousness of the issue, nobody is talking about rolling Tobin to pass expansion.

“He’s had a plan for (expansion) and shown that he’s willing to sit at the table and figure it out, and that’s not what happened to the Senate from Day One,” Carter said.

Also, there are different political dynamics at play in the House than the Senate.

Tobin hails from the more moderate wing of the party. He has worked his way through leadership while earning a reputation of being protective of his fellow Republicans. He won the speakership in a landslide, and even seconded a motion to nominate his opponent for the position.

Biggs has served as Appropriations Committee chair, and held a position as majority leader for one year, but has always been something of an outsider to the party leadership. He has generally sided with the most conservative wing of the GOP. He won the presidency in a contentious upset election over former Senate President Steve Pierce.

Lobbyist Mike Gardner, who is working on behalf of the hospital industry in favor of Medicaid expansion, said he doesn’t expect anything like what occurred in the Senate to happen in the House, mostly because Tobin is highly respected within his caucus.

“Tobin has done a very good job (as speaker) and he’s always been a strong protector of his caucus, and the caucus is now a strong protector of Tobin,” Gardner said.

Gardner said the Republicans who are joining with Democrats on Medicaid expansion have no desire to form a coalition on the entire budget. They would rather see the budget proposal be amended in the House to reflect GOP values, and pass through the chamber with mostly Republican support.

“At the end of the day, (Tobin) needs this to be a Republican vote, and it will be,” Gardner said.

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