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Before budget vote, House Democrats discuss and debate, Republicans dine

House Republicans and Democrats both agreed Tuesday night would be a good time to huddle with their respective party members.

Republicans ate dinner at the vast Augustus B. Turnbull III Florida State Conference Center for a mandatory meeting. Sans food, Dems jammed into their cramped third-floor conference room in the Capitol that was so small a third of those who attended had to stand.

Guess which one was open to reporters?

Although House Speaker Will Weatherford is a self-described lover of transparency, reporters weren’t allowed at Tuesday’s dinner, just three days before the floor vote of the $74.4 billion budget and an unveiling later this week of an alternative to Pres. Barack Obama’s Medicaid expansion.

But reporters were allowed to attend the Democratic caucus meeting, where members spoke and sometimes argued for about 90 minutes about whether they should, en masse, oppose the House budget on Friday because an alternative to the expansion of Medicaid has yet to be presented.

For Democrats, it’s a tough call. There is much in the budget that the party’s 44 members like, such as a $1,400 across-the-board pay raise for state workers and more education spending.

“I struggle with it,” said Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale. “There are good things in the budget and I would love to vote for it.”

But Thurston had to convince members that the Medicaid expansion issue was directly tied to the budget and that its absence made supporting next year's spending difficult.

Heading into Tuesday’s meeting, he said his members would agree with him. “I’m confident our caucus will do the right thing,” Thurston said. “I’m not worried about any of them. They will do the right thing for the right reason.”

Turns out he was right -- mostly. Members overwhelmingly voted to support Thurston’s call to oppose the budget as long as it doesn’t address a suitable plan to expand coverage for the uninsured.

But young lawmakers just elected to their seats expressed some misgivings with the Medicaid-or-bust approach.

Jared Moskowitz of Coral Springs, a 32-year-old rookie lawmaker from a wealthy district, said he wanted to wait until Democrats could learn more about Republican plans to address the Affordable Care Act. Weatherford’s office has authorized the House select committee to meet on Monday between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. An agenda for that meeting is due Thursday. Why not wait until then to discuss whether or not the Democrats will support the budget, Moskowitz asked.

“We should take a position on the budget, but we should do it on Thursday when we have all the facts,” Moskowitz said. “I don’t see what the rush is.”

Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, 29, said he’s concerned that voting no on the budget would be viewed as voting against teacher raises, state pay raises, and other popular programs and projects.

Others clearly were thinking about reelection campaigns.

“There are other members in this room who are in very difficult districts,” said Dave Kerner, a 29-year-old newbie from Lake Worth. “By taking a caucus position and almost forcing our hand to vote against the budget is going to complicate their reelection efforts to a certain degree.”

Most Democrats, however, scoffed at the notion that the public or labor groups would hold their votes on the budget against them.

“For us to sit here and think that teachers, government employees that we have fought for the last two to four years, when all the Republicans were voting for teacher merit pay, we were the ones fighting for teachers,” said Reggie Fullwood of Jacksonville. “No way in hell, and I mean hell, that any teacher or government worker with any common sense would say, ‘Wow, look at those Democrats. They didn’t vote for a raise for us.’”

Don’t get carried away by “trinkets” Republicans have put in the budget, Fullwood said, because they can always be taken out later during budget conference.

“Some of us have little stuff that the Republicans have so graciously put in the budget,” Fullwood said. “They’ve done us a favor. They put stuff in the budget for us. Oooooh. Guess what? None of that stuff means anything. The most important thing we can do this session is Medicaid expansion...we are the voice of the people. We have to be the voice of the little guy, the least of us. And Medicaid expansion is the most important thing that we have to fight for. Don’t get all twisted about these projects that you think you have. Because you may not have it at the end of the day.”

Not all rookie lawmakers were hesitant to back Thurston. Kionne McGhee of Miami said there was no question that Democrats should support Thurston and reject the budget. He said those who think otherwise might consider a different caucus. He referenced a meeting between himself, Thurston and other Democratic lawmakers during a recent Miami visit by Obama.

“We are at the crux of one of the biggest pieces of legislation in our lifetime,” McGhee said. “A few of us had an opportunity to meet Pres. Obama, and we were in a tent with the president, and the president came in and said, ‘Keep pushing. We know (Republicans) will make this tough for you. We know they will play games’ To hear the president say what he said, telling us what this fight is truly about, and for him to say this is what it is all about, and for us now to say we are going to question whether or not a caucus position should be had? That goes above my head.”

It was a spirited, free-wheeling debate that may happen among Republicans. But only the Democrats on Tuesday were willing to publicly air their disagreements.

“Republicans can’t have a discussion like this without getting chastised or punished,” said Katie Edwards, of Plantation.

The debate grew most heated when Moskowitz pushed to delay the vote, which he said was being done without enough input from members or communication from leaders like Thurston.

“We’re the Democratic Party and we’re supposed to be pro-Democracy,” he said. “And when people have dissenting views, we shame them or demagogue them. We shouldn’t be doing that. We heard that if we don’t vote for this we should join another caucus.”

Thurston had to break in when Moskowitz was drowned out by murmurings. Moskowitz started talking again.

“I’m new here, so I have lots of questions,” he said. “If (Republicans) come out with a plan, will we be back here Thursday and decide we want to hold the caucus position. We’re all jumping on the bandwagon with Medicaid expansion and Pres. Obama like he really cares what we’re going to do.”

This time, a chorus of “whoas” and “wows” and eye-rolls and shaking heads followed. (Afterward, Moskowitz clarified that he meant that Obama didn't care what the caucus vote was, but did care about whether Florida approved Medicaid expansion, which he said he supports.)

There was no roll call, only a voice vote. About four could be heard in opposition. (Moskowitz voted yes). Of two Democrats who voted against Thurston and were interviewed, neither said they opposed Medicaid expansion.

Rep. Dwight Taylor, of Daytona Beach, voted no because he said there was no relationship between the expansion, which he supports, and the budget. Rep. Linda Stewart, of Orlando, wanted to wait to see what the Republicans might unveil later this week. It’s not clear what will happen when Republicans unveil their plan this week.

Thurston said another caucus vote on the budget could take place Thursday night. They’re at the mercy of what the Republicans end up deciding. Of course those discussions have been held far from where the public could listen.