Senate Republicans on Thursday battered Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning for “carrying water” for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on Medicaid expansion and placing GOP candidates in jeopardy in an election year.
The backlash was a response to Denning and Kelly's appearance Monday in Wichita to promote a Medicaid expansion deal the two reached before the session began in January.
Criticism of Denning erupted during a meeting of Senate Republicans, with Denning and Senate President Susan Wagle sitting side by side. Wagle, a Wichita Republican who has vowed to prevent passage of Medicaid expansion, said Denning betrayed his caucus by teaming up with a Democratic rival.
"For us, all of a sudden you changed direction,“ Wagle said. ”You stood with the governor, and you carried the governor's water on a bill she wanted. And now, we're being put in a very bad situation in Sedgwick County."
Another Wichita Republican, Sen. Gene Suellentrop, said Denning has lost the support of a majority of the Senate GOP caucus. Denning didn’t notify Senate Republicans that he planned to make the appearance alongside the governor, Suellentrop said.
In Wichita, Denning and Kelly welcomed constituents to call GOP holdouts on Medicaid expansion, which would unlock federal funding and provide health insurance to an estimated 130,000 low-income Kansas adults and children.
"I'll ask you to make a commitment to the caucus that you will not travel with the Democrat governor again to other districts to bully us, or whatever you want to call it,“ Suellentrop said.
“No,” Denning replied. “I’m not going to make that commitment.”
Wagle and Denning have been at odds from the start of the session, when Wagle used her authority to place Medicaid expansion in a committee controlled by Suellentrop. Wagle wanted to use Medicaid expansion, a top priority for Democrats, as leverage for her efforts to rewrite the Kansas Constitution to clarify it offers no right to abortion.
When the proposed abortion amendment failed to gain two-thirds majority support in the House, Wagle responded by stifling progress on bills passed by the House, introduced by Democrats or relating to health care.
"We had a conversation at the beginning of the session,“ Denning said, ”and she said, 'My leadership position as Senate president will be to kill Medicaid. Your position as Senate majority leader will be to do anything you can to pass it.’ "
Suellentrop and Wagle expressed concern that Denning’s push for Medicaid expansion will hurt vulnerable Republican candidates.
In Wagle’s district, Republican Rep. Renee Erickson faces a challenge from former Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston, who is running for the Democrats. Elsewhere in Wichita, Republican Sen. Mike Petersen is up against Democratic Rep. Jim Ward.
The political stakes are heightened by anti-abortion lobbyists who want to install their proposed amendment before passing Medicaid expansion to avoid any possibility of taxpayer-funded abortions.
"Our biggest voting bloc in the primary is the pro-life community,“ Wagle said. ”We cannot be asked to step on that community and get re-elected, so you're putting us in a very difficult spot, Jim. Very, very difficult."
Suellentrop said Denning was supposed to come up with a plan to be used only if Medicaid expansion couldn’t be stopped.
"The understanding was the bill was here in case we got rolled,“ Suellentrop said.
Ethan Patterson, the chief of staff for Denning, said “a small faction” of six or seven Senate Republicans was trying to block the legislative process.
Kansans want lawmakers to work together, Patterson said, and “we’ve had 10 years in this building where bipartisanship did not exist.”
"If the caucus does decide Jim Denning is not the leader for them anymore, we know w'ere on the right side of this issue — not only for our district but for the state — on what people want and what the masses want,“ Patterson said. ”So we're going to sleep easy — easy — tonight and moving forward."
Last month, Suellentrop’s committee sent a message to Denning by attaching work requirements and other controversial provisions, then voting it down anyway.
One of the changes installed by Suellentrop’s committee would allow health care providers to refuse service for anything that violates their “conscience,” which is defined as “deeply held religious beliefs.” That language routinely is used to protect institutions that refuse service on the basis of sexual preference or gender identity.
Denning retaliated by introducing legislation that would apply the faith-based exemption for all health care services. Patterson said the bill was aimed at the Truth Caucus, a group of conservative Republicans.
"If they want that debate, we can have that debate, but what we do not want is that debate to have to be tied to Medicaid,“ Patterson said. ”The Truth Caucus — little faction within the ranks here — believes that if they put that on, it automatically kills Medicaid because the governor will not sign it. That is the whole purpose of tying that to Medicaid."
Suellentrop said he hasn’t scheduled a hearing on the proposal because Denning hasn’t talked to him about it.
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents of the state were tired of being used as political footballs.
"Now they're willing to play a game where LGBT people are denied health care and we just die,“ Witt said. ”It's the most disgusting and vile thing I have seen come out of this building in several years."