LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Conservatives have plenty of passion and anger to direct at Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel as they push for him to fight the new federal health care law. They just don’t have any leverage to see that he does it.
McDaniel has emerged as the new target of Republicans opposed to the health care overhaul that was signed into law last week and quickly challenged in court by 13 state attorneys general.
About three dozen protesters rallied outside McDaniel’s office urging him to challenge the law in court, and an advocacy group is pressing him to certify an amendment intended to keep the new measure from going into force in Arkansas.
It’s the type of pressure that would alarm politicians worried about an anti-incumbent environment at the ballot box this fall. But with no primary challenge and Republicans taking a pass on his race, McDaniel, a Democrat widely viewed as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2014, doesn’t have to worry about that.
“I think first of all, if you look at the AG’s that are bringing the suit, most of them are bringing it from a partisan perspective and some of them are either entangled in tough primaries this year for either re-election or governor,” McDaniel said last week. “I think there’s a lot of politics driving those lawsuits and by the time those lawsuits are dismissed, the elections will have come and gone.”
The suit by other state attorneys general challenges the constitutionality of the measure. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum led the effort to file the suit that claims Congress doesn’t have the constitutional right to force people to get health coverage. It also says the federal government is violating the Constitution by forcing a mandate on the states without providing resources to pay for it.
A 14th state, Virginia, did not join the bigger lawsuit, but filed its own, which other states are also considering.
The challenges have prompted Republicans to call on McDaniel to file his own suit, but he says he doesn’t believe it would have merit.
The calls for a challenge have come from top Republicans, including candidates running for Democrat Blanche Lincoln’s Senate seat. Jim Keet, the GOP’s candidate for governor, has also called on Gov. Mike Beebe to hold a special session to pass legislation challenging the overhaul.
Meanwhile, a group called Secure Arkansas is pushing McDaniel to certify the language of its proposed constitutional amendment, clearing the way for a signature-gathering process. The group wants to put a measure before voters that would prohibit requiring people to buy health insurance.
McDaniel’s office has already rejected the group’s proposal once, saying the language was unclear. The group is simultaneously gathering signatures for a measure aimed at cutting off public services to illegal immigrants.
To gather support, Secure Arkansas organized a rally on the sidewalk in front of McDaniel’s office in downtown Little Rock.
The attention puts McDaniel squarely in the middle of the health care issue, but he says he’s sticking to the legal argument. With no major-party opposition in the attorney general’s race, there’s little pressure on him to wade into the political fight.
McDaniel opted out of a congressional campaign this year, saying he wouldn’t run for the House seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Marion Berry in east Arkansas. And he’s stayed mostly quiet on the health care debate, saying he doesn’t want to comment on the merits of the bill.
“I don’t have to approach it from a standpoint of a congressional candidate or a member of Congress,” McDaniel said. “I just have to look at it as the state’s lawyer.”
McDaniel said he shares Beebe’s concerns about the cost the health care overhaul will add to Arkansas’ Medicaid budget, and said he believes the measure could have unintended consequences.
The issue, however, could be one that could haunt McDaniel later. If he runs for governor in four years, McDaniel’s most likely opponent in the Democratic primary would be Rep. Mike Ross, a conservative congressman who voted against the health overhaul in the House.
McDaniel says that, for the attorneys general who are filing suit, legal action is the closest they can come to casting a “no” vote on the health care overhaul. But he says that doesn’t mean his inaction is the equivalent of a “yes.”
“It’s just a matter of not bringing an action that’s not rooted in the law,” McDaniel said. “It’s me doing my job.”