Governor Beebe and bipartisanship

That was a prime seat that Governor Beebe had, at that White House meeting with President Obama and the veep and other administration bigwigs on Monday, a confab that’s always part of the winter conference of the National Governor’s Association. There he sat, Mr. Beebe, in the storied, elegant State Dining Room, first table, first chair, to Mr. Obama’s right. Best seat in the house, save perhaps one, which Mr. Beebe does not want; his own, back in Little Rock, being quite warm (or cold?) enough.

I wasn’t there, my seat was in my office, but I watched it unfold on television. Before the camera zoomed in on the president, and when it pulled back a bit, Mr. Beebe could be seen cradling his chin in his hand, forefinger to his temple, breaking the post occasionally to jot something on a notepad. This was during the “public” portion of their meeting, the president and the governors, an opportunity for Mr. Obama to deliver a message to the television audience.

The president’s statement was about the impending budget sequester, of course.

Absent a budget agreement between the president and Congress, which practically no one in authority believes will be reached before the March 1 deadline, $85 billion in federal spending (not including Medicare and Social Security) will be cut in the seven months remaining in the government’s fiscal year. Mr. Obama wants spending cuts but also wants additional tax revenue; Congress, having just agreed to raise marginal rates on the wealthiest Americans, wants only less spending.

The sequester arrangement, a deal between executive and legislative almost 18 months ago that allowed an increase in the debt ceiling, would begin to take full effect in October, slashing more than a trillion dollars in spending over nine years. And no one expects that to take place, either, just as no one thinks the sequester this fiscal year will remain effective for terribly long. The potential price to Arkansas of the stalemate, should it continue through September, would be in the tens of millions of dollars. It is difficult to arrive at a precise figure, as the administration’s estimate, almost certainly on the high side, is challenged — in both dollars and severity of impact — by the Republican congressional leadership. But they would be felt.

“These cuts do not have to happen,” Mr. Obama intoned to the governors. “Congress can turn them off any time with just a little bit of compromise.”

He continued: “Some of you with legislatures controlled by the other party, you know that compromise is essential to getting things done.”

The camera at that moment was focused solely on Mr. Obama, so there is no knowing if Mr. Beebe’s expression changed, to reflect either resolve or despair (though he would say the former).

When the president urged the governors to press upon their states’ congressional delegations the necessity of a budget solution (one to his liking, naturally) I thought immediately of the lobbying effort Mr. Beebe already had undertaken, one point of which I had witnessed only days earlier. That was the Governor’s address to a convention of Arkansas’s county judges, where he implored them to pressure their state legislators to approve an expansion of the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

At the same time he has been lobbying on a second front, Mr. Beebe, attempting to wring from Mr. Obama’s administration additional concessions on Medicaid — a waiver of sorts that would permit the state to divert scores of thousands of low income Arkansans to private, subsidized coverage under the health insurance exchange. He appears to have succeeded — in Washington. If, as one observer put it, the latest proposal will allow Democrats to claim expansion and Republicans to brag that they privatized it, then call that bipartisanship, compromise — whatever.

Medicaid and its eventual disposition in Arkansas aside, other battles back home began looming larger. Guns and abortion, which have preoccupied the General Assembly since the session began, began to fade in the inevitability of signature or veto, or veto overrides. Now comes the money. The governor had barely returned to the Capitol before a House committee approved a bill, anathema to Mr. Beebe, which would link state spending to personal incomes, which only sounds sane. And Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) attempted to disband a two-member mutual admiration society — he and Mr. Beebe — by advocating tax cuts of at least $150 million, not including what would be lost to a reduction in the capital gains levy.

We are about to learn how far civility and bipartisanship, two volumes of Mr. Beebe’s canon, will reach in a new, ideological moment in Arkansas.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.