The Senate chamber isn’t quiet very often. But it fell silent Wednesday after Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, made the rare move of calling for an on-the-record vote to overturn Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell’s ruling that portions of his amendment weren’t relevant to a bill to nullify the federal Affordable Care Act.
Dubbed an anti-commandeering measure, Davis’ amendment aimed to slow the implementation of the ACA in South Carolina by asserting the state couldn’t stop the law, but that it wouldn’t use its resources to help it along either. The Senate upheld McConnell’s ruling by a vote of 28-14. Senators then killed the nullification bill–H3101– 33-9.
Republicans voting to kill the bill fretted passing it would cause legal turmoil. Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Prosperity, said on the floor Thursday that it wasn’t a Republican versus Democrat issue.
But in addition to the Republicans who voted to side with McConnell and to kill the House bill, the Democrats actively worked against the anti-commandeering and nullification legislation Wednesday. Davis spoke on the floor for several minutes in between attempts by Democrats to adjourn, which would have sent the Senate back to where it started before debate began that day. Appearing to send a message to the dozen or so supporters who stayed to observe the debate until the Senate adjourned around 9 p.m. that night, Davis locked eyes with people in the balcony. He said a motion to adjourn would come up in minutes and compared the attempts to bog down his amendment to groundhog day.
After maneuvers to adjourn failed, Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, raised an objection to say Davis’ amendment was not relevant to the bill.
Titans of industry
Senators worried about the federal government pushing back and were under pressure by special interest groups not wanting to fight the federal law, Davis said by phone Thursday. At election time, it comes down to “who do they fear the most”—the interest groups or the people? It’s a pick-your-poison—or your enemies—scenario, he said.
Davis indicated Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina—one of the state’s largest insurers—was a primary impediment to the legislation. That company and several other large South Carolina corporations directly lobbied Davis to stop the progress of his amendment. Davis attributed lobbying efforts to the volume of business the corporation does on the health care exchange. A spokeswoman at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina declined comment on the company’s position on the legislation and on the amount of business it does. She recommended instead requesting general comment on the industry from the South Carolina Alliance of Health Plans, an association of health care providers that has education and advocacy wings. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina has two divisions selling insurance on the exchange and is one of only several insurers in the state selling on the exchange. South Carolina has dozens of licensed insurance companies.
The company is one of approximately 30 members of the South Carolina Alliance of Health Plans. “Our members have to abide by the federal law, so long as it’s the law of the land,” said the group’s executive director, former Republican Sen. Jim Ritchie. Members worried the legislation might make it difficult for them to do their jobs.
Ritchie’s group was generally unsupportive of Davis’ amendment, though they did like the provision for regulating navigators, he said. Under the federal law navigators facilitate, for free, signing up for health insurance. That provision was a pitfall in McConnell’s ruling.
The alliance lobbied against the nullification bill, but not against Davis’ amendment outside of testifying at hearings Davis held before introducing the legislation, said Ritchie.
Davis held three hearings in the last year after the Senate President Pro Tempore, John
Courson, R-Columbia, tasked him with finding a legal path to slowing the implementation of the federal law. Courson voted to uphold McConnell’s ruling, and against the nullification bill. He did not respond to a phone message Friday requesting comment.
Despite its compliance, the alliance isn’t pleased with the way the ACA was passed and carried out. “[It’s] very disruptive to consumers and the insurance market,” said Ritchie. “I think consumers are very scared of major change in such a central part of their life.”
We are family?
Calling the legislation’s outcome “a betrayal” by senators, one activist said lawmakers exchanged state sovereignty and the protection of our families for special interests. “This is not going to end well for them,” said Jesse Graston, “when they become the face of tyranny.” Graston thinks the law could lead to rationing of health care services. He led other tea party groups in leaning on lawmakers to approve measures to thwart the implementation of the health care law.
But Sen. Hutto thinks that once the law fully takes effect, people will start to see the benefits just like with other federal programs such as Social Security. He opposed the House bill and the Senate amendment and sided with what he called in a phone interview Friday “main stream South Carolina,” referring to the health care, corporate and other sectors. He said the debate was a political fight to appease the far right. “There’s obviously a fight within the party,” said Hutto. “Passion is a great thing, but it’s best expressed at the ballot box.”
Hutto said the legislation made the state look like it’s in “silly season.” But Davis disagreed. He thinks lawmakers slowing down the federal law in order to protect the state’s citizens would give it honor.
Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Woodruff, thinks so too. “Everybody there could have been a hero,” said Chumley by phone Friday. As owner of a small farm and a landscaping business, Chumley thinks the legislation would have been good for economic development. “[The ACA is] hurting our small businesses,” he said.
Chumley was the primary sponsor for the nullification bill. The House stripped out provisions for enforcing the bill before passing it last year.
Try, try again
Davis plans to file the text of his amendment as a stand-alone bill on Tuesday. Chumley said he will file similar legislation in the House next week. “We are going to protect the people of South Carolina from Obamacare if at all possible,” he said.
Graston, who knows about the plans to introduce the legislation, said he is optimistic. But Davis thinks it’s a long shot for the year. “I don’t see the political will there,” he said. “But that’s not to say you don’t try.”
Hutto said if advocates of nullification and anti-commandeering—two sides of the same coin to him—had a chance, it needed to be now. But he conceded similar measures do have a minimal chance of passage going forward. The legislative cross-over deadline is May 1, the date by which a piece of legislation must reach the other chamber if it is to pass that year. Lawmakers are scheduled to take a week off around Easter.