Politics & Government

South Carolina's McMaster takes health care fight to DC

WASHINGTON — South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster took his bid to derail congressional health-care legislation to Washington on Wednesday, addressing conservative leaders and holding a televised news conference.

McMaster, who's running for governor, said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, a Democrat, had joined his threatened court challenge to the Senate bill because it would require other states to cover Nebraska’s cost of expanded Medicaid coverage under the measure.

Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, agreed last month to back the bill to provide medical benefits to 38 million uninsured Americans after Senate Democratic leaders inserted a clause exempting Nebraska from at least $100 million in new costs. That deal would increase the other states’ payments.

The Nebraska exemption is contained in the health-care legislation passed by the Senate last month, but not in a House measure approved earlier. Democratic leaders from the two chambers are in negotiations to craft a single bill for final congressional approval.

Nelson's support was crucial because he was the 60th senator to back the health-care legislation, a threshold that prevented filibusters or other procedural delays by Republicans.

McMaster, a Republican, denied that his increasingly high profile opposition to the health-care bill is politically motivated or tied to his gubernatorial bid.

"This bill is something that would put a financial burden on my state from Nebraska at a time when we can barely keep the lights on in South Carolina," McMaster told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington.

In a gubernatorial fundraising letter emailed to South Carolina conservatives Tuesday, however, McMaster asked for campaign contributions to help him block the health-care legislation.

"Fourteen states' attorneys general have joined me in warning (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid that they must remove the unconstitutional 'Cornhusker Kickback' or face action," McMaster said in the fundraising appeal.

McMaster said Reid and Pelosi hadn't responded to a letter from him and 12 other top state prosecutors, all Republicans, asking them to drop the special funding provisions for Nebraska. Edmondson of Oklahoma joined the group after the letter was sent.

Regan Lachapelle, a Reid spokeswoman, indicated Wednesday that there would be no response.

"This letter is yet another Republican effort to distract and divert attention from the fact that they have chosen to protect their insurance-company friends rather than reform our health-care system," she said.

While in Washington, McMaster also spoke at a forum sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative advocacy group, and addressed a lunch group sponsored by American Spectator, a conservative political journal.

For the first time, McMaster said publicly that Nelson had called him on Dec. 31 in an effort to resolve the dispute over the Senate health-care bill.

Nelson told McMaster that he had not sought the special deal for Nebraska, according to McMaster. Nelson said he wanted the federal government to cover the increased Medicaid costs for all states, or a clause allowing states to opt out of the new insurance mandates.

Nelson also told McMaster that he was trying "to fix" the problem caused by the exemption for Nebraska.

Nelson's aides didn’t dispute McMaster's description of the phone conversation, but they criticized his threat to go to court over the provision.

"It’s a frivolous lawsuit," said Jake Thompson, Nelson's communications director. "If this health-care bill was an ambulance, the South Carolina attorney general would be chasing it."