Democrats slowed legislative business in the House to a crawl Tuesday as they protested the Republican majority's refusal to accept billions of dollars in federal money to expand health coverage for low-income Floridians.
Using a rare procedural move, House Democrats forced bills to be read in their entirety --- a time-consuming process that prevented other measures from being taken up. As the usually frenzied end of the legislative session approaches Friday, House members sat quietly at their desks, many looking bored or typing on laptops and cell phones.
The slowdown started after the Senate approved a plan Tuesday that would use federal money to offer private health insurance to roughly 1 million low-income people. Democrats have been frustrated for weeks that House Republicans refuse to go along with such a plan.
?It?s unfortunate that we have had to take such unusual action today, but my Democratic colleagues and I believe that a drastic situation requires drastic tactics," House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said.
But House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, showed no indication that the slowdown would change his mind on how to expand health care. He said the House spent about five hours last week debating the issue and rejected the Senate approach.
"I think it's a little disappointing and, frankly, unbecoming of some members to want to try to slow down the process,'' Weatherford said. "We have a lot of work to do. I think the citizens of Florida sent us here to get work done, and that's exactly what we're doing. We?re focused on that. If there are people who want to slow down the process -- they can't stop the process, but they can slow it down. We're okay with taking our time. We're in no rush."
Earlier Tuesday, Thurston and Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, asked Gov. Rick Scott to veto the proposed 2013-14 state budget if lawmakers do not approve a health-expansion plan that would use the federal money. Scott in February backed accepting the money to expand Medicaid and later supported the Senate plan.
With the House and Senate unable to reach agreement, Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said Monday it is unlikely that lawmakers will approve a plan this week to expand health coverage. Nevertheless, senators voted 38-1 on Tuesday to approve the Senate plan, with only St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes dissenting.
Thurston vowed to continue holding up action in the House on Wednesday, though the strategy was causing bills to die, including Democratic-sponsored bills. Also, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, is expected to appear with Thurston and Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, at a news conference to try to ratchet up pressure.
The issue of expanding health coverage stems from the federal Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which called for a massive expansion of Medicaid eligibility. Analysts have estimated that such a Medicaid expansion could lead to about $51 billion in federal money flowing to the state during the next decade.
House and Senate Republican leaders refused weeks ago to expand Medicaid but have proposed alternatives for trying to extend health coverage to more low-income Floridians.
The Senate plan, sponsored by Negron, would use the Florida Healthy Kids Corp. --- a program that provides subsidized insurance for children --- as a vehicle to offer insurance coverage to adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. It would rely on tapping federal money that otherwise would go for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Negron, however, has been careful to distance the Senate plan from expanding Medicaid, which has long been unpopular among Republicans. Also, he said enrollees would have to pick up at least a small part of the cost through such things as co-payments.
"This is not a giveaway program,'' Negron said.
House Republicans, meanwhile, passed a bill last week that would use state money to offer $2,000 health subsidies to targeted groups of low-income people. Weatherford and his allies have repeatedly said they do not believe the state can count on the federal Medicaid money and that, eventually, Florida taxpayers could be forced to pick up part of the tab for an expansion such as the Senate plan.
Like Negron, Weatherford signaled that a compromise was not likely before the end of the session.
"Can we get there between now and Friday?" Weatherford asked. "Probably not. But that doesn't mean that we can't continue to have a conversation about it in the off-season."
A lone exception among House Republicans has been Rep. Mike Fasano, who supports the Senate plan. The New Port Richey Republican said Democrats were justified Tuesday in making a statement about health care and also said they shouldn't be the only ones raising the issue.
"You know who should be drawing attention to this?" Fasano asked. "Gov. Scott. Where is Gov. Scott? Nowhere to be found."