Incremental GOP moves on guns, Medicaid and pot are promising and maddening at the same time

Published June 16, 2022

By Rob Schofield

A lot of things have been happening in the world of policy and politics of late that, not all that long ago, seemed fairly unimaginable.

In Washington over the weekend, a group of 10 Republican U.S. senators, including North Carolina’s Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, came together with a group of Democrats to announce an important agreement on gun safety legislation. Though extremely modest in scope, the agreement represents an important step forward and marks the first time in recent memory that a significant bloc of Republican lawmakers has been willing to buck the absolutist nonsense peddled by the agents of death at the NRA.

As President Biden wisely and accurately observed in a statement, the agreement “does not do everything that I think is needed, but it reflects important steps in the right direction, and would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades.”

The gun safety agreement is not the only instance of notable movement in a progressive direction from important Republican lawmakers in recent weeks.

Here in North Carolina, many have watched in amazement recently as North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – a politician who for several years condemned both the idea of Medicaid expansion and those who supported the idea in contemptuous terms – has suddenly embraced the concept and the arguments long voiced by proponents with the keenness of a religious convert.

When the expansion bill was considered by the Senate two weeks ago, Berger actually took to the floor to speak – an unusual step for the Senate leader – and forcefully endorsed it, saying of passage of the measure, “This is the right thing to do, and it’s not even close.”

As Greensboro Democratic Senator and longtime Medicaid champion Gladys Robinson put it when Berger informed her of his stance and told her she was going to like the expansion bill, “Even though it took 10 years, y’all are there. Praise the Lord.”

But wait, there’s more.

Just days after the Medicaid expansion vote, the same GOP-dominated Senate took up and passed yet another long-stymied proposal – this one to add North Carolina to the long and rapidly growing list of states to allow lawful access to medical marijuana.

And once again, it was one of the General Assembly’s most conservative members – Senate Rules Committee chairman Bill Rabon, a six-term Republican from a conservative southeastern North Carolina district – who led the charge.

As reported, Rabon sounded like a proverbial bleeding-heart liberal as he spoke in compelling and emotional terms about his own battle with cancer and the ways medical marijuana can aid people battling difficult health challenges.

Taken together, the spate of conversions is enough to give a body a welcome injection of hope and reassurance in these troubled times that facts can and do still matter – even for a political party still laboring under the thumb of the Big Lie and the big liar behind it.

If the truth can finally, at long last, seep into the consciousness of prominent, deeply conservative Republicans on these issues, perhaps it might just happen on other matters of critical, and even existential, importance, like the global climate emergency and the desperate need to preserve American democracy.

As encouraging as these recent developments have been, however, some giant and difficult-to-dislodge elephants remain in the room and blocking the way.

First is that none of the measures in question has yet become law and each faces several major and potentially insurmountable hurdles on the way to getting there. The U.S. Senate deal may have enough votes to overcome a filibuster, but anyone who thinks the NRA and Fox News aren’t still capable of scuttling it hasn’t been paying attention.

Meanwhile, when it comes to Medicaid and marijuana, most state House Republicans appear to remain just as stubbornly immune to facts and reason as ever – a hard and maddening reality that has left supporters of both proposals talking wistfully of 2023 or perhaps a special post-election legislative session as the most realistic potential dates for final passage.

And then there is the fact that each of the proposals is significantly flawed. Both the gun safety measure and the medical pot bill represent only tiny, incremental first steps in the right direction, and the Medicaid expansion bill is loaded with unnecessary baggage.

In short, while the progress on all three measures is long overdue and more than welcome, the hard reality is that lengthy and unnecessary delays have caused (and continue to cause) thousands of preventable deaths and vast amounts of human suffering – to mass murders, to a lack of access to health care, and to opioid addiction and overdoses for people seeking pain relief. What’s more, even under the best of circumstances, the delayed half measures now under discussion will allow much of this suffering and death to continue.

Surely, we can and must do better.