It’s all over but the finger-pointing.
All session long, Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Tennessee Legislature have been trying to link the state up with more than 20 others in the country that have committed to challenging the constitutionality of the federal health care reform package passed by Congress and signed by the president in March.
Their efforts were resisted by Democratic Party leaders, especially in the House. But Republican in-fighting — particularly between two lawmakers competing against one another in the upcoming primary — assuredly played at least some part in the effort’s failure.
“Was politics involved? Undoubtedly, politics was involved,” said Rep. Susan Lynn, a Mt. Juliet Republican who carried one such bill this spring. “And it’s a shame. It wasn’t politics on my part.”
Lynn and Sen. Mae Beavers, also from Mt. Juliet, both pushed legislation in their respective chambers this year to counter the federal health care reforms.
Notoriously hostile adversaries, Lynn and Beavers are running for the same state Senate seat — the one Beavers now occupies — in the Aug. 5 GOP primary.
This session, Beavers carried the “Health Freedom Act” in the Senate. Rousing only one Senate vote in opposition back in April, the bill directed the state attorney general to both challenge the new federal health care legislation and defend Tennesseans who choose to ignore its mandate that everyone acquire health insurance should the feds come calling to collect on tax penalties for lack of compliance.
Lynn’s bill, “The Health Care Freedom Act,” which made its way through the Tennessee House of Representatives, took a less confrontational stance toward the federal government. It said that “the legislature” can’t require citizens to purchase health insurance and said nothing about the federal government.
Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper declared that the Beavers bill was unconstitutional, but Lynn’s HB2622 was not.
Cooper’s opinion gave opponents of the effort to resist the federal health care overhaul the political ammo they were looking for to try and derail her bill. After weeks of Beavers’ legislation languishing in the House, the Budget Subcommittee killed it on a 7-7 vote, with Speaker Kent Williams casting the deciding vote against it.
After the House version of the bill — HB3433 — died, the Senate, employing a rarely-used legislative maneuver, retrieved Lynn’s bill from a closed committee where it had stalled. They revised it by cutting-and-pasting in Beavers’ bill-language, then passed it on the Senate floor, 22-9 — thus setting up the conference committee collision that occurred late Wednesday night.
The three senators and representatives assigned to the conference committee debated for about 20 minutes — with Lynn and Beavers seated across from each other, but making little eye contact.
The conference committee voted to delete portions of Beavers’ bill requiring the attorney general to defend citizens who are penalized for lacking health care, which the House conferees said was the most objectionable element to their side. The rest of her bill they left intact, except for a new severability clause, and presented it as the conference-committee compromise.
“I wish the Senate had simply adopted the House version. The House version was constitutional, and if they had adopted that version, we’d have the Health Care Freedom Act,” said Lynn, who initially voted against the compromise.
Lynn said she had no problem personally with the language of the original Beavers bill. In fact, Lynn said she supported it — and also that she believes the attorney general’s opinion declaring it unconstitutional was erroneous and unfounded.
Still, a number of House supporters of Lynn’s bill had expressed their unwillingness to take action directly contrary to the attorney general’s advice. And furthermore, members of the governor’s staff had indicated he’d likely veto the compromise legislation if it contained provisions the AG had objected to.
“Voting for the Senate version was basically voting for a veto,” said Lynn. “Basically, they put up a bill that was not passable.”
Nonetheless, Lynn formally endorsed the Senate-backed conference committee version of the legislation — in order, she said, to “bring it before the body, because otherwise we would have no agreement.”
It failed later on the House floor, needing another six votes to achieve a constitutional majority — 44 “ayes” to 43 “noes.”
For her part, Beavers said she was never particularly concerned about the governor vetoing the bill. It was more important to stick to her principles, she said.
Lynn’s bill was ineffectual and ambiguous, said Beavers. In order to achieve desired results, the state needed to pass a measure that outlined specific actions and defined its terms — namely, those which the Senate had initially and overwhelmingly passed.
“The weaker bill had a lot of problems and there’s no remedy for Tennesseans (who buck the federal mandate). It simply made a statement, ” said Beavers. “The stronger bill provides a remedy for Tennesseans should the government fine them.”
Beavers blamed the bill’s defeat on the House, mostly on Democratic opponents and Speaker Williams, but also those likely GOP supporters who’d gone missing before the floor vote.
“I think, simply put, too many members left the House floor and they did not have the votes. There were 16 people who were either not there or didn’t vote,” she said. “I think it would have passed the House if the members had been there.”
In a statement released Thursday, Beavers also said “political games” and “side deals” in the House caused problems. She promised to introduce the legislation again next year if she’s reelected.
“To me, it’s not a question of politics, it’s a matter of policy and principle… the Tennessee legislature needs to send a firm message to Washington that we do not agree with their unprecedented and unconstitutional national health care legislation.”
Another player in the dueling health-care bills mix was Sen. Diane Black, a Senate Republican running for Congress in the 6th District. She, too, is battling a fellow Tennessee lawmaker in the GOP primary — Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, who is himself trying to capitalize on anti-ObamaCare sentiment in Tennessee.
Black was the original Senate sponsor to Lynn’s bill — but she handed that responsibility over to Beavers when the new language was inserted on Tuesday. Lynn said she now regrets asking Black to sponsor the Senate version of her bill, saying the Gallatin Republican wasn’t energetic enough in pushing for its passage much earlier in the session.
Like Beavers, Black blamed the failure of the Legislature to initiate a formal challenge to the federal health care package on “the Democrats who did not support the bill” — as well as the absence of Republicans on the House floor at the time of the vote.