Wednesday May 16, 2012 | 11:03 AM

(Note: The Brief is a new, semi-daily, supplement to the Capitol Ticker, sort of a compendium of links, observations or quick analysis of Maine political news. - S.M.)

The floor speeches are over. The partisan-line vote is done. The contentious bill cutting a host of health care offerings from the Department of Health and Human Services has been signed by Gov. Paul LePage.

Now come the election-year politics of a budget that will go into effect in August.

To party operatives in the State House Tuesday's party-line vote -- dubbed "the breakup" by some -- was no surprise. The DHHS budget represents a clear ideological split between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of Medicaid, or MaineCare, as it's called in Maine.

There was some angst within the GOP about green-lighting a budget that eliminates health care coverage for thousands of low-income Mainers, particularly in an election year. But by and large, the proposal represents the party's belief that Medicaid spending is unsustainable and an inefficient way to deliver health care services.

Democrats, meanwhile, have viewed Medicaid services as necessary to helping the poor and elderly. It's the reason the party has increased programmatic offerings when it held power in Augusta. This policy view is also reflected in the federal Affordable Care Act, which mandates certain levels of Medicaid spending at the state level.

Those mandates, known as Maintenance of Effort, are challenged in the DHHS budget. Several of the enacted cuts require federal waivers -- waivers that no state has received. However, Republicans and the governor are banking on the repeal of the ACA, either through a U.S. Supreme Court vote on the law's individual mandate or if the GOP can assume power in Congress and the White House.

Even if those events don't happen the MOE provisions could become a part of the election year rhetoric if the GOP argues that the ACA hamstrings state Medicaid budgets. 

That won't be the only rhetoric voters hear this year.

The DHHS budget will be fodder for the campaign trail. Democrats, as they did during floor speeches on Tuesday, will attempt to cast the GOP as recklessly eliminating health care coverage for the most vulnerable Mainers. Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, called the plan a "bean counter budget." "It's all about the numbers," she said. "It's not about the people."

The GOP, meanwhile, will likely deploy rhetoric similar to what was heard on Wednesday. Some lawmakers said that Democrats wanted to "kick the can down the road" that, yes, the budget was difficult, but it takes leadership to make difficult choices. Others argued that the "explosion of Medicaid spending" hit the pockets of all Mainers. The GOP-enacted budget, they said, made sure the "most vulnerable were protected."

Voters will hear that and much more. Some operatives have noted that polling shows the electorate is movable on the Medicaid issue. Which way it moves it may well depend on the effectiveness of the messaging -- and determine who controls the State House in 2013. 

* * *

It wasn't an official endorsement, but U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told the progressive blog Talking Points Memo that she will back presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. 

Snowe had been mum on her endorsement, prompting speculation by her critics that her backing would be, as one blogger put it, "kryptonite" for the nominee because of her moderate reputation.

* * * 

Speaking of endorsements, Rick Bennett, one of six Republicans vying to replace Snowe next year, received a key pickup this week when the Republican Liberty Caucus said it was backing the former state Senate president.

The RLC endorsement is coveted among the GOP candidates, and not just because it may come with campaign money. The RLC is the shell group for Ron Paul supporters, who have demonstrated in Maine and other states to be highly effective organizers.

Gov. Paul LePage won RLC backing during the 2010 governor's race and we all know how that turned out.

About the Author

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Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.

Steve can be reached at 791-6345 or smistler@pressherald.com.
On Twitter: @stevemistler

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