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The Arizona Legislature is debating today whether to extend Medicaid for about 300,000 people. The expansion is a requirement to get federal funding under the Affordable Care Act. The surprise is who's been leading the effort: Republican Governor Jan Brewer. She's one of President Obama's staunchest critics, even going to court to fight him on immigration and health care. But this time, she has confounded conservatives in her own party as NPR's Ted Robbins reports.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Google the words Brewer and Obama, you'll get a now-famous image of Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer wagging her finger at President Barack Obama on the tarmac last year when she met him in Phoenix. So imagine the shock when she used that very image to tell the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature that they couldn't ignore the problem of uninsured poor people.
GOVERNOR JAN BREWER: Nor can we simply wag our finger at the federal government. Trust me, I tried that once.
ROBBINS: That was in January. Since then, she's been joining health care providers and business leaders for regular rallies on the Capitol grounds in Phoenix to support Medicaid expansion.
BREWER: I am so honored these last four months to stand shoulder to shoulder with each and every one of you as we fight for Arizona's families.
ROBBINS: Brewer says it's the right thing to do, and it makes financial sense. Arizona Tea Party conservatives are viscerally opposed to the Affordable Care Act in any form. Some call the governor a traitor. First-term Republican Representative David Livingston isn't quite that harsh.
REPRESENTATIVE DAVID LIVINGSTON: We're frustrated, I think, would be the best word. It just go bankrupt the country.
ROBBINS: Democrats like Representative Bruce Wheeler are delighted.
REPRESENTATIVE BRUCE WHEELER: As you well know, there are very few things we Democrats agree with the governor on, but we certainly do on this. We're her strongest supporters and boosters on expanding Medicaid.
ROBBINS: Which brings us to the middle, a rare position in the Arizona Legislature for the last decade. But after redistricting, Republicans lost their supermajority in both houses last November. Enough Democrats and moderate Republicans were elected to form a coalition which is working with Brewer. Representative Bob Robson is one of those Republicans.
REPRESENTATIVE BOB ROBSON: I don't like Obamacare, never have. I don't like the concept. I think if anything, it was pushed on the American people. But at the same time, that's not the issue that's before me.
ROBBINS: The issue, says Robson, is money. Arizona gets $1.6 billion in federal aid to cover Medicaid patients if it expands enrollment. If it doesn't, the state has to come up with the money to treat existing patients.
ROBSON: And right now on balance, I mean, the governor is dead on spot on right with respect to the dollar amounts that this would affect.
ROBBINS: What's remarkable is that Governor Brewer and the coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans managed to maneuver around the legislature's conservative leadership, which opposes Medicaid expansion. But Tea Party conservatives like Representative David Livingston say those moderates will pay down the road.
LIVINGSTON: Because we are preparing for the 2014 election, that is the big war. This is a battle in that war.
ROBBINS: Conservative ideologues vow to defeat the moderates through primary challenges next year. As for Governor Jan Brewer? This is her last term. Now that she's shown her strength, political threats don't mean much anymore.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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