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Senate Republican leaders appear receptive to Medicaid expansion proposal from Democratic leader

Following an apparent Republican breakdown of Medicaid expansion negotiations late Wednesday night, the House Democratic leader walked onto the Senate floor Thursday to deliver a new proposal to Senate Republican leaders.

Rep. Robert Johnson III, the House Democratic leader whose caucus stalled a vote on an earlier Republican plan to expand Medicaid, offered an idea to Republican Senate Medicaid Chairman Kevin Blackwell Thursday afternoon — just hours before a final deadline that would end expansion negotiations altogether.

Johnson told Blackwell that he could promise more than 30 Democratic House “yea” votes if Senate Republicans could agree to a slight tweak of one provision in their expansion plan. The Democratic leader said his proposal seemed to be well met by Blackwell and later Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, offering hope that expansion talks were not yet dead.

“We are all closer on a final plan than I think they realized,” Johnson said shortly after talking with Blackwell and Hosemann. “We just wanted them to know we think there’s a true path forward for compromise here and we can leave here this weekend with Medicaid expansion on the books. The Senate can have almost precisely what they wanted all along, and I believe there are more than enough votes in the House for it.”

READ MORE: Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann shuts down House Republican idea to let voters decide Medicaid expansion

Senate Republicans have long demanded that any expansion program include a stringent work requirement for Medicaid recipients — a provision the federal government has shot down for the 13 other states. House Republicans and Democrats also wanted to pass a plan that included work requirement language, though their proposal was pragmatic with federal policy and would have allowed an expansion program to go into effect even if the federal government did not allow it. 

Senate Republicans held firm against that idea, though, which led to the impasse that threatened to kill the entire negotiations late Wednesday night and into Thursday.

But Johnson, aiming to revive the expansion negotiations ahead of a Thursday at 8 p.m. deadline, approached Blackwell on the Senate floor Thursday late morning and a few minutes later met with Hosemann outside the Senate chamber to propose a tweak to the original Senate bill.

The Senate, in its most recent plan, wanted the state to request a federal waiver to implement a work requirement every year until it was approved. With an understanding that the federal government was likely to not approve that waiver, Johnson asked the Senate Republicans on Thursday to mandate the state apply for the waiver just one year rather than every year indefinitely.

“We just want the Legislature to come back and have a conversation next year if the federal government doesn’t approve the work requirement. It’s as simple as that,” Johnson said shortly after walking off the Senate floor. “He (Blackwell) said he didn’t think that was necessarily a bad idea and that he’d take it to the lieutenant governor (Hosemann).”

Shortly after Johnson spoke with Blackwell and Hosemann, Hosemann told reporters he and his colleagues were willing to listen to any proposals, but as of Thursday at noon, “we haven’t gotten anything on paper.” Hosemann would not commit to supporting Johnson’s idea, but Johnson said Blackwell and Hosemann sounded receptive to the idea.

“We’ll look at anything between now and the deadline,” Hosemann said. “That’s something we just heard and we’ll talk it over. But we do think our original plan was a strong compromise, and it was unfortunate it wasn’t accepted.”

Johnson said he would take the morning conversations to House Republican leaders, who have remained close with Johnson throughout the course of the Medicaid expansion negotiations.

READ MORE: Lawmakers buy one more day to reach Medicaid expansion compromise

It is exceedingly rare for any Democrat to be in a position of influence in the supermajority Republican Legislature. But Medicaid expansion plan requires a three-fifths vote for passage and likely will need a two-thirds majority vote to override an expected veto from Gov. Tate Reeves, who has long opposed expansion. Those vote thresholds place Democrats in a position of power with many Republicans still unwilling to support Medicaid expansion.

“There’s been a lot of noise in this building, and I wish we could do everything we want to do,” Johnson said. “But the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of everyone here — Senate Republicans, House Republicans, Senate Democrats, House Democrats — want to help provide health coverage to a state that desperately needs it. We’re close. We just have to keep talking.”

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