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VOL. 128 | NO. 205 | Monday, October 21, 2013

Cohen Pushes Medicaid Expansion in Wake of Shutdown

By Bill Dries

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U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, got a lift back to his district from Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., at the end of a long week in Washington in which Congress ended the government shutdown just as it was hours from intersecting with the debt ceiling.

Cohen misplaced his keys and Wicker offered him a lift to get the spare keys to get into his car at Memphis International Airport. And Wicker, who knows the city well, visited a few places around town on the way back to the airport with Cohen.


Wicker was among the six U.S. senators representing the tri-state area, five of them Republicans, including Wicker, who all voted for the deal.

Cohen was half of a split vote on the deal between the two U.S. House members who represent Shelby County. Cohen, a Democrat, voted for it. U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, a Republican, voted against it.

Back in the 9th District Thursday, Oct. 17, Cohen was unequivocal that Republicans in their first and second terms of office were to blame for the shutdown and the near fiscal crisis on raising the debt ceiling. He said the standoff left “little tiny fractures in America’s reputation abroad and respect for the dollar and our economic foundation.”

“Those fissures will not be repaired. They will be there forever,” Cohen said.

Asked if Democrats in Congress bore some blame or would bear some blame from the public outside the Washington beltway, Cohen said no, citing criticism of Republican holdouts by congressmen and senators in their own party.

“Some people will continue to say the earth is flat,” Cohen replied. “This was a sad, sad state. It was totally unnecessary. … It was an unnecessary, expensive folly.”

Cohen doesn’t think the same kind of standoff is likely to happen in January and February when the two temporary resolutions run out. He thinks plummeting approval ratings for Republicans who fared markedly worse in those ratings than Democrats will work against another standoff.

“Congress’ brand is in single figures. The Republican Party and the tea party aren’t far above. … The lowest they’ve ever been,” Cohen said. “I think that the more moderate seasoned members of the (Republican) caucus will start to assert themselves. They won’t let this happen again. They took a terrible political beating on this. I think they’ve learned their lesson.”

House Speaker John Boehner’s future as leader of the majority Republican House has been debated by partisans on both sides.

“I think he will continue to be the speaker. But I don’t think he will be re-elected again. The Republicans could call for another election. But I don’t think it will happen,” Cohen said. “I think he will remain and I think somebody will challenge him and I think he will not be the nominee that wins in January 2015.”

Meanwhile, with Republican attempts to defund, or at least delay, the Affordable Care Act unsuccessful in the congressional standoff, Cohen pushed for Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to expand Medicaid, or TennCare, coverage in Tennessee.

“That’s going to leave a lot of people in the breach without insurance,” Cohen said. “I think it’s a fiscal and a moral crime that Tennessee hasn’t expanded.”

Haslam declined the three years of 100 percent federal funding of the Medicaid expansion, which becomes 90 percent federal funding in the following three years. He cited the likelihood that beyond those six years, federal funding could be cut off and state government would be faced with either cutting thousands from TennCare or coming up with all of the money to keep the expansion intact.

Haslam has also said that he continues to negotiate with federal health care officials and administrators in Washington on possible terms for acceptance of a Medicaid expansion. He also said if he does reach an agreement he will seek approval from the Tennessee legislature.

Cohen, a former state senator, said such an agreement might win approval in the House but that approval is unlikely in the state Senate under the leadership of Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.

“It’s my understanding that the state Senate … is his Waterloo. He knows it’s the right thing to do economically and morally,” Cohen said of Haslam. “Nobody thinks the Senate would vote for it. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Senate in many ways mirrors the folks that are in that tea party caucus that just caused 16 days of havoc.”

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