Virginia State Sen. Phil Puckett resigning

RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WAVY) — 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 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.

DOCUMENT: Puckett Resignation Letter (pdf.)

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.

The reaction by Democrats of 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.”

McAuliffe’s office said in a statement Sunday that he was deeply disappointed by the resignation of a fellow Democrat and the uncertainty that creates around expanding Medicaid. McAuliffe favors widening the health care program for the poor.

Gov. McAuliffe’s full statement:

I am deeply disappointed by this news and the uncertainty it creates at a time when 400,000 Virginians are waiting for access to quality health care, especially in Southwest Virginia. This situation is unacceptable, but the bipartisan majority in the Senate and I will continue to work hard to put Virginians first and find compromise on a budget that closes the coverage gap.

Statement from the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus:

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.

 Statement from Lt. Governor Ralph Northam :

“The reports about the circumstances surrounding this resignation are very troubling. I certainly hope the reports are not true and that the exchange of state resources did not motivate this decision. What we have at stake here in the budget debate is whether we will provide over 400,000 hard working Virginians with quality healthcare, and I hope that those who oppose closing the coverage gap would not resort to exchanging state resources in an attempt to deny Virginians coverage.”

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