As Senate President Susan Wagle cozied up to donors at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser, her colleagues in the Kansas Legislature navigated the smoldering debris of a failed vote on Wagle's signature issue — a constitutional amendment on abortion.
Wagle, a Wichita Republican whose attention is divided by her U.S. Senate campaign, attended on Monday a Value in Electing Women PAC event where she touted her efforts to stand up for conservative principles.
She also dispatched a letter to Kansas Senate Republicans, urging their support as she summons anti-abortion forces to intensify opposition to Medicaid expansion.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park who forged a compromise on Medicaid expansion with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, fired back with a letter of his own.
"It is disrespectful to blatantly disrupt the legislative process and threaten fellow legislators for personal political gain," Denning wrote.
In Wagle's absence, the committee handling Denning's Medicaid expansion bill punted plans to take action on the measure. Instead, the panel heard one-sided testimony Tuesday about a fear of public-funded abortions.
Responding to questions for this story, Wagle offered a message to her political rivals: "Bring it on."
“I will not sacrifice the unborn or the safety of Kansas women because of a crusade aimed at government-run health care, and my caucus stands behind me on that," Wagle said. "The message I have received loud and clear from Kansans across the state is that we should not use taxpayer dollars to fund abortions."
Wagle's pressure threatens to derail passage of Medicaid expansion this session, but forces behind the scenes are gathering support for a possible coup.
Democrats and Republicans who favor Medicaid expansion can bypass the committee process if they secure 24 votes from the 40-member chamber. Denning then could call for a vote and ship the expansion bill to the House.
"I think that's the end game,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat from Topeka. “That's what we need to do. That's the expectation everybody has."
Hensley attempted a similar maneuver last year but gathered just 23 votes. It isn't clear how many Republicans would be willing to defy threats and direct orders from Wagle.
Hensley said Wagle is using abortion and Medicaid expansion as political footballs to bolster her campaign for higher office.
"She’s burning down the place,“ Hensley said. ”She's a one-person wrecking crew."
The House passed a competing Medicaid expansion bill last session. If the same bill were used by the Senate as a vehicle for the Denning-Kelly plan, the House could concur with a simple majority. The parliamentary mechanics to get that far, however, likely would require 70 votes in the 125-member chamber.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Democrat from Wichita, said Medicaid expansion still can pass this session, “despite the obstruction of certain members of Republican leadership” and the intertwining of Medicaid expansion with the abortion amendment.
“Kansans should not have to wait another year to get the health care they so desperately need just because some Republican leaders are throwing a childish temper tantrum,” Sawyer said.
House Republicans could deliver a counter-punch by blocking the governor’s requests to reorganize state government. That includes her plan to place all social services under the umbrella of a new agency, the Department of Human Services.
The Kansas Supreme Court in a ruling last year declared the Kansas Constitution protects a right to personal autonomy, which applies to a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy. Anti-abortion forces responded by drafting an amendment that would declare the state constitution contains no right to an abortion.
Wagle led the charge to pass the amendment, which won approval in the Senate, and deflected criticism about the possibility it could lead to a total ban on abortion. Language in the amendment allows for the Legislature to regulate abortion even in instances of rape, incest and when a mother’s life is in danger.
The Senate leader’s attitude appears to have changed from last April, when audio obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal captured her candid remarks to a group of Republican students at Washburn University.
"My colleagues, who I govern over as their Senate president, if they think all I’m trying to do right now is climb to higher office, I won’t have a lot of respect from them in getting things done,“ Wagle said.
In her letter to colleagues on Monday, Wagle said she pulled all bills off the calendar that could be used as a vehicle for Medicaid expansion “out of respect for the many hardworking Kansas taxpayers who believe in a Creator God and the sanctity of life."
Lobbyists for Kansans for Life and faith-based groups backed Wagle's play with testimony Tuesday in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. Their rivals weren’t given notice of the hearing or an opportunity to testify.
The anti-abortion advocates said the failure to secure a constitutional amendment on abortion coupled with passage of Medicaid expansion would ensure public funds are used on abortion in Kansas.
"This is a point that has been met with skepticism,“ said Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference. ”There's nothing so stubborn as a fact."
State and federal law prohibit the use of public funds for abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the federal restriction, but anti-abortion advocates told lawmakers the Kansas Supreme Court would reach a different conclusion.
Paul Linton, a private attorney hired by the Kansas Catholic Conference, said other states have allowed Medicaid dollars to be used on abortions. He estimated Kansas tax dollars would be used for at least 2,200 abortions per year if Medicaid expansion were to pass without the abortion amendment.
Jeanne Gawdun, lobbyist for Kansans for Life, said tax-funded abortions were an “absolute certainty” in explaining why the organization moved from neutral on Medicaid expansion to firmly opposed.
Gawdun refused to explain why the group insisted the abortion amendment be placed on the August primary ballot. She went back-and-forth on the issue with Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Democrat from Mission Hills who is campaigning for the same U.S. Senate seat as Wagle.
The Legislature would pass the abortion amendment, Bollier said, if the question were placed on the November ballot. Four times, Bollier asked why Kansans for Life won’t support the amendment if it appears when the most people turn out to vote.
"We support giving everyone the opportunity to vote on it,“ Gawdwun said. ”In August, everyone does have that, but also it's not buried at the bottom of a long ballot where there's a lot of federal issues going on."
Advocates for Medicaid expansion have planned a rally for Thursday at the Statehouse to demonstrate support for passing the Denning-Kelly plan this session.
"The bottom line is that Medicaid expansion saves lives,“ said April Holman, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas. ”By expanding access to Medicaid, we can ensure that 10s of thousands of Kansans have access to life-saving measures, such as cancer screenings, medications, mental health care and preventive medicine."