TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Minutes after Florida Gov. Rick Scott made a surprise about-face decision to expand Medicaid, social media lit up with complaints from tea party loyalists and core conservatives who said they felt betrayed by a leader who campaigned on his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
The last 24 hours created an almost unthinkable situation for Scott: Republicans now openly criticizing the head of their party in Florida, while Democrats were rushing to praise him.
"We may invite him to come and join the party," joked Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation and leader of the Florida House Democrats.
Scott on Wednesday announced that he would support plans to expand Medicaid coverage to roughly 900,000 more people under the federal health overhaul. He became the seventh Republican governor so far to propose expanding the taxpayer-funded health insurance program.
But Scott's stance drew national interest because he had been a passionate opponent to the overhaul. Just last summer Scott had vowed he would not go along with the expansion of Medicaid after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states could opt out.
The governor called his decision a tough choice and one that he would support as long as the federal government pays 100 percent of the increased costs, which is the deal offered to states by the Obama administration for the first three years. After that, the federal government says it will pay 90 percent of the cost for the additional enrollees.
But Scott's announcement not only put him at odds with his formerly staunch supporters it also puts him cross-ways with other prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush, who visited the state Capitol last week while Scott was out of town, privately told House Republicans that they should try to create an alternative proposal instead of expanding Medicaid.
Meanwhile, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam used a Thursday appearance before a trade group to rip into Scott's decision.
Putnam, who has been mentioned as a potential candidate for governor in 2018, has rarely publicly disagreed with the governor. But he contended that Florida will not be able to roll back the expansion once it becomes law even if the federal government chooses to cut back the amount of aid it is now promising states.
"It's extremely disappointing to learn that Florida may take on billions in additional costs to taxpayers by expanding Medicaid coverage," Putnam said. "With over three million Floridians already enrolled in Medicaid, Florida cannot afford to foot the bill for millions more. We will not be able to undo the expansion of Medicaid after enrollment has exploded and the federal government begins to shift the cost to the states."
Scott, who has been suffering from low approval ratings for most of his term as governor, is also taking a political risk since there's no guarantee that the Republican-controlled Legislature will go along with his proposal.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, in an interview with The Associated Press, continued to express skepticism about going along with the expansion - which would extend health insurance coverage to people who make up to 138 percent of the poverty line. He said any decision to expand Medicaid would be based on "principles" and "facts."
Sen. Joe Negron, who heads a Senate committee overseeing implementation of the Affordable Care Act, said the Senate is still weighing options and Scott's decision does not mean they'll reach the same conclusion. The Senate committee expects to make a recommendation in early March.
"I think we should complete our trial before we make a verdict," Negron said.
Some are already questioning whether Scott's decision could cost him votes and support when he runs for re-election in 2014. Former Gov. Charlie Crist drew scorn from his fellow Republicans when he supported the federal stimulus pushed by Obama. Crist wound up leaving the party and lost his independent bid for the U.S. Senate. He is now mulling whether to run against Scott as a Democrat.
University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett said he thinks Scott's turnabout could hurt his re-election chances.
"Because he's changed on such a fundamental issue, I think he's going to lose more votes than he gains," said Jewett. "You can do a lot in politics as long as you keep your base. You lose your base, you tend to get in trouble. The decision today is going to basically make many of his most fervent supporters will probably not be enthusiastic about him this time around. They might sit it out."
That was echoed by Slade O'Brien, Florida director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. His group sent out a blast email encouraging conservatives to call Scott's office and chastise him for flip flopping for political gain.
"In my mind it's a huge miscalculation," said O'Brien. "There may be some high priced consultant sitting in a room doing some polling saying this will help in 2014 but I
think he's got a lot of explaining to do to his base right now."