Did Virginia state senator get paid off to resign, and block Medicaid expansion?

Democrats in Virginia are howling in anger after a resignation in the state Senate has handed Republicans control of the state’s upper chamber — and dealt a severe blow to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s attempt to use the budget to force approval for an expansion of Medicaid. Sen. Phillip Puckett announced his resignation today, allowing the GOP to take a 20-19 majority in the chamber, in exchange for a tobacco commission job for himself and a judicial appointment for his daughter. However, the purported reason for the switch — the Medicaid expansion — was going nowhere regardless of whether Puckett kept his seat or not:

Republicans appear to have outmaneuvered Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state budget standoff by persuading a Democratic senator to resign his seat, at least temporarily giving the GOP control of the chamber and possibly dooming the governor’s push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) will announce his resignation Monday, effective immediately, paving the way to appoint his daughter to a judgeship and Puckett to the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission, three people familiar with the plan said Sunday. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The news prompted outrage among Democrats — and accusations that Republicans were trying to buy the Senate with job offers in order to thwart McAuliffe’s proposal to expand health coverage to 400,000 low-income Virginians.

Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said Republicans were unable to win the policy argument about Medicaid expansion, so they have resorted to other means.

Except that the House wasn’t going to approve the expansion anyway:

Puckett’s unexpected departure will give the GOP a 20-to-19 majority in the Senate at a time when McAuliffe was counting on Senate support for his Medicaid plan. The GOP-dominated House is firmly opposed, and the disagreement has led to a budget standoff that could trigger a government shutdown if it is not resolved before the start of the new fiscal year, July 1. In addition, Puckett’s district is heavily Republican, and it will be difficult for Democrats to retain the seat in a special election and hang on to control of the Senate overall.

On top of that, three Republican state Senators actually support the Medicaid expansion, so Puckett’s departure doesn’t change the overall Senate position on the policy. The reason that Democrats are so angry is that McAuliffe has ginned up a budget standoff in a high-stakes poker move to force the House to accept the expansion. The Senate wouldn’t move on the budget while it was in Democratic Party hands, even though the Washington Post notes that some Democrats in the upper chamber had begun to rethink a potential government shutdown as a political strategy to force Republicans to knuckle under.

With Republicans in charge, the Senate can now call itself back into session and pass the state budget. That would put the onus back on McAuliffe to shut down the government and deny the rest of the state’s benefits to the poor as a tactic to get the Medicaid expansion he demands. Good luck with that strategy, especially since McAuliffe’s party spent all last fall deriding that kind of strategy as illegitimate at the national level, and will likely try to use it as an attack in the midterm Congressional elections as well.

The trade of the jobs for Puckett’s resignation, though, still looks … pretty slimy. That’s especially true since the legislature blocked a payoff appointment from McAuliffe for a Republican who switched parties to support him. Virginia Republicans are claiming that the jobs for Puckett and his daughter are unrelated to his resignation and the sudden seizure of control of the state Senate, but only their publicists will buy that. They undid the results of an election and made someone a judge for a payoff. Even those who both support their policy goals and oppose McAuliffe’s tactics have to admit that this debases politics and public policy.