There were prayers outside the House chamber, and passion inside.
And in the end, there was a predictable result: Minnesota House Republicans, who last week overwhelmingly supported a bill that would have preserved the General Assistance Medical Care program, overwhelmingly supported their governor’s veto of the program this afternoon. Not a single Republican supported the override effort.
Today’s vote to support override was 87-46, although procedural moves mean the bill will almost certainly be returned for override again.
Two weeks ago, the House supported the GAMC bill 125-9.
Why this remarkable switch on the medical program that has served Minnesota’s poorest?
“We’re waiting for something better,” said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove, one of 38 Republicans who switched their vote.
Most of the Republicans claim they did a flip-flop on the vote because they had assumed the original bill would be headed to a conference committee for some cleaning up. As it turned out, there was no conference committee. Instead the House and Senate bills were procedurally meshed and sent on to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who came down with his veto.
In supporting the governor today, most Republicans still seem to believe that some sort of reformed GAMC program will rise from the current ashes after more negotiations with the governor.
Over and over again, the Republicans called for more negotiations with the governor’s office, though DFLers noted that negotiations have been going on for nine months and that seven weekend negotiating sessions with the governor’s staff could not reach agreement.
Still, the Republicans fled from their earlier votes to be on the governor’s side.
“The bill that was passed,” said Urdahl, “was a 16-month bill. We need a longer-term fix.”
Republicans were insisting that DFLers were simply trying to create more conflict on an emotional issue by pushing for today’s override vote. (The Senate, it should be noted, was able to override the veto last week on a straight party-line vote.)
DFLers insisted that there was nothing political about today’s effort. They pushed for the vote because, they said, counties today were being notified by the state to start the process for transferring the poorest of the poor to the Minnesota Care program.
MinnCare not only will not work for the vast majority of GAMC recipients, DFLers argued, but also will cost the state more.
The Republicans stood with the governor despite considerable pressure from religious leaders, who led a prayer service outside the chamber before the vote. The group of more than 100 held up little electric candles, pictures of GAMC patients and banners.
“Let these candles flicker with the intensity of hope,” said one of the rally leaders.
There were murmurs of agreement and prayers for the homeless, the poor — and Republicans.
“I do have some hope,” said the Rev. Gwin Pratt, pastor at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Minnetonka. “I’m sure there must be at least three or four Republicans wavering about supporting the governor, who has ambitions outside of Minnesota.”
But religion was working both sides of this issue. God’s name wasn’t just being tossed around outside the chamber, but inside as well.
In fact, Republicans started getting testy about it.
“I’m just as good a Christian as you are,” said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, on the House floor.
Cornish was clearly angry because a number of DFLers took to citing Bible verses about service to the poor as a reason for Republicans to support the override.
“You trot out the Bible on an issue like this,” said Cornish, “But I don’t hear you when the issue is abortion or gay marriage,” both of which he opposes.
Religion wasn’t the only point of debate. The budget was, too, though it was a hard one for Republicans to argue logically.
“Our bill costs less and covers more,” said an exasperated Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul. “I know it’s hard to override your governor, but …”
On and on went the debate.
The DFL needed to hold its 87 members and pick up three Republicans to override. But as expected, not a single Republican supported the effort.
In the end, House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, switched his vote, seemingly opposing the override. But that was merely a procedural vote, allowing the DFL to call for another override at a later date.
“The choices don’t get any easier,” Sertich had told the membership just before today’s vote. “Members, we aren’t talking about saving a program. We’re talking about saving people’s lives. Do you honestly think that if we wait another day, week or month, there’ll be another option before us?”
Clearly, Sertich believes that pressure will build.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.