Our U.S. senator, Shelley Moore Capito, is the most important lawmaker in the country right now, as our democracy faces two questions that will define our politics for a generation.
Question 1: Will our government rip medicine from the hands of 20-plus million of its citizens?
Question 2: Who leads the Republican party?
Sen. Capito is in a unique position to answer those questions in the coming days. Her answers will define her legacy.
Capito is West Virginia’s junior senator, but her influence is real. She is a leader on the powerful Appropriations Committee and a member of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s inner circle. She was vetted for the vice presidency and hails from the state where President Donald Trump is most popular. She has spent decades cultivating relationships on both sides of the aisle.
And we in West Virginia have seen her use that influence to put her constituents first.
When House Republicans first tried to gut the ACA and cut health coverage for millions of Americans, Sen. Capito bravely emerged as one of four moderate Republican senators to publicly criticize the plan. They said it would hurt too many of us working families and our children. Their voice made a difference. That House plan died, in part because many House Republicans didn’t want to pass something that would then fail in the Senate. Unfortunately, a new, worse plan was then rushed through the House weeks later, without vetting.
Since then, Capito has maintained a public stance that she will not vote for any measure that leaves thousands of her constituents uncovered. She made that promise, because she has friends who are among the 170,000 working families covered under Medicaid expansion. She has visited some of the 24,000 West Virginians getting drug treatment through Medicaid. She knows that more than half of pregnant West Virginia women obtain prenatal care through Medicaid.
But pressure is mounting for Senate Republicans to pass a bill by any means necessary.
McConnell has a bill in his sights, calling it a “compromise” — even though all it does is delay by a couple years the horrible consequences of the House version. He is counting votes and twisting arms. He’s threatening to call a vote before the Congressional Budget Office has a chance to report on the consequences of such a plan, because he knows what the report will say: 20-plus million families cut. Enormous tax cut for the rich. Hundreds of hospital closings — especially in rural places like West Virginia. And no reduction in the costs of health care for businesses or the middle class.
There is no question that this plan is bad for our state. Even the West Virginia congressmen who voted for it seem to wish they had a “do-over.” It was reported last week that Jenkins, Mooney and McKinley assumed the Senate would “fix” it.
Here we stand. McConnell needs two of those four moderate Republicans if he wants to pass the bill. If Capito backs the proposal, it will almost certainly succeed, and we will watch our health system and the Republican party unravel over the next seven years. If she stands firm, the plan will almost certainly fail. Because of her position in leadership and hailing from a “red” state, if she takes a stand on behalf of her constituents, other moderates will follow. If that happens, Congress would then be free to work on a plan to actually fix health care — instead of turning it into a tax giveaway to the rich.
As Capito goes, so goes the country.
In the meantime, West Virginia citizens are working day and night, hospital executives and working moms, Democrats and Republicans and Independents, calling for courage. We are sending postcards and telling our stories online under the hashtag #savemecapito. We are organizing vigils and bus tours and prayer meetings.
Sen. Capito’s choice is clear. Will she choose West Virginia or Washington? Medicine for millions, or the embrace of McConnell and Trump? Drug treatment, or tax break for millionaires?
Finally, will she cement her legacy of courageously standing up for her constituents, or be forgotten as another politician who walked the party line?
We might have an answer soon.
Stephen Smith is director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.