(AP) Democratic Sen. Phil Puckett is resigning from the state Senate and is now being considered for a high-level job with the GOP-controlled Virginia tobacco commission, state officials said Sunday. The resignation gives Republicans a one-seat advantage in the upper chamber in the middle of a bitter battle between the parties over Medicaid expansion.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office said in a statement Sunday that he was deeply disappointed by the resignation of a fellow Democrat and the uncertainty that move creates around expanding Medicaid. A Democratically controlled Senate had given McAuliffe helpful leverage against the Republican-controlled House of Delegates in his push to expand the health care program for the poor.
The fight over Medicaid has stalled passage of a budget and threatens a government shutdown starting July 1.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said Puckett notified the governor’s office Saturday that he’s stepping down. Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw said Puckett’s resignation will be effective Monday.
Puckett is a conservative from Russell County who renounced support for President Barack Obama during an expensive 2011 re-election campaign. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
His departure means there will be 20 Republicans to 19 Democrats in the upper chamber. Democrats had enjoyed control with a 20-20 split because Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who votes when there are ties, is a Democrat.
His precise impact on the Medicaid debate is hard to immediately measure. Puckett’s leaving still leaves a majority of pro-Medicaid expansion legislators in the Senate, as three Republican senators continue to side with the Democrats on the issue. The tea party group Americans for Prosperity’s Virginia chapter issued a statement Sunday calling on the three Republican senators to join their GOP colleagues and pass a state budget without Medicaid expansion.
Republican Delegate Terry Kilgore said the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization’s executive committee is considering giving Puckett a staff job. Kilgore, who is chairman of the commission, said he’s discussed a deputy director job opening with Puckett but that “no deals have been made.”
“I don’t have final say over his hire, but I think the commission would be crazy not to offer the position to someone of his stature,” Kilgore said in a statement.
Puckett’s resignation also removes a hurdle for General Assembly approval of his daughter, Martha P. Ketron, for a full term as a Juvenile and Domestic Relations judge, published reports said. She is on the bench now, but only with a short-term appointment by circuit judges in her district. The state Senate refused to approve her bid for a full term during the regular session this year.
The reaction by Democrats to Puckett’s resignation was varied.
The Senate Democratic Caucus issued a two-sentence statement: “We regret Sen. Puckett’s decision to resign, but we are grateful for his many years of service. We wish him and his family all the best.”
But House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mark Sickles accused Puckett and Republicans of engaging in an “unseemly, shady, backroom deal.”
— ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press, with additional VLW staff reporting