AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Top conservatives closed ranks Monday around their staunch opposition to expanding the Medicaid program in Texas, while rising Democratic stars gathered to urge them to embrace it — dueling ideological visions pitting the state's current political heavy hitters against its possible future ones.
Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn made a rare joint appearance at the Texas Capitol to condemn Medicaid expansion, a centerpiece of the White House-backed health care reform. Two hours later in virtually the same spot, Democrats Joaquin and Julian Castro held their own gathering to cheer extending federal health care coverage to the working poor and low-income Hispanics.
Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the nation with about 6.2 million of its residents lacking health care coverage. Advocates claim extending Medicaid could provide up to 1 million Texans with some coverage.
Adding to the tension is the fact that the GOP controls every statewide office, but Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in Texas and tend to vote Democratic, meaning the Castros could one day help turn what is currently one of America's reddest states more blue.
Plus, some Republican governors around the country have reversed their past rejection of Medicaid expansion and now support joining a program in which the federal government will cover 100 percent of the costs for the first three years and 90 percent for seven years after that.
Perry, Cruz and Cornyn held a discussion with fellow Republicans, including U.S. Reps. Joe Barton and Michael Burgess, as well as state Rep. Lois Kolhorst, who chairs the Public Health Committee in the Texas House. All agreed to hold firm against expansion.
"Texas will not be held hostage to this fool's errand of adding more than a million Texans to a broken system," Perry said. "Medicaid expansion is, simply put, a misguided and an ultimately doomed attempt to mask the shortcomings of Obamacare."
Medicaid is already a jointly funded federal-state program. Perry said it accounts for about 25 percent of the state budget and that embracing expansion would eventually see that balloon to a third of all state expenditures.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst likened the promise of "free" federal funds for three years to a drug dealer offering gratis highs until an addict is hooked. Cruz, a tea party firebrand who upset Dewhurst in the GOP senatorial primary last summer, made a similar analogy.
"The federal government is much like an unscrupulous individual trying to convince a junior high kid to start smoking," he said. "They start by giving a few cigarettes and saying, 'Just try it,' and there's a bait and switch that's coming."
Outside the governor's Capitol office where the GOP leaders gathered, about 40 protesters marched in circles, their chants echoing throughout the marble interior. Some carried signs with Perry, Cruz and Cornyn depicted as The Three Stooges, and they alternated between chanting "Health care Now!" ''Let us in!" and "Perry, take the money now!"
Many stayed for the news conference organized by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin brother and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro. Both urged Perry to negotiate with federal officials and win the flexibility to allow Texas to accept Medicaid expansion on its own terms.
Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said expansion would provide coverage to about 1 million uninsured adults and 400,000 children in Texas, while boosting the state's economic output by $67 billion in four years and creating an estimated 231,000 jobs by 2016.
"We believe that expanding Medicaid is not only the moral thing to do, but, economically, it is the right thing to do," he said.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, head of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, said that of 3.6 million uninsured Hispanics in Texas, 58 percent would be covered by Medicaid expansion.
"What we heard this morning is more of the same which is 'no' and 'manana.' Governor, 'No' is not a public policy response," Martinez Fischer said.
He added: "Manana is the busiest day of the week in the Texas Capitol. We never get to it."