WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The annual meeting of the National Governors Association kicked off here Friday inside the Old Virginia Capitol, a towering brick building constructed in 1705.
But when it came to the substance of the two-day summit, there was no mistaking that it was 2012.
Republican Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, outgoing chairman of the NGA; Democratic Gov. Jack Markell or Delaware, incoming chairman; and Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell of Virginia, the host-state governor, launched the event talking about the need to find common ground.
But all of that dissolved the moment the conversation turned to the issue that promises to dominate the conference: President Barack Obama's health care law and the decision facing governors on whether to opt out of the law's Medicaid expansion.
"I think you can see from the conversation already, I wouldn't expect a statement coming out of the NGA," Heineman deadpanned when asked whether the governors hoped to achieve some kind of consensus on the Medicaid issue.
Typically, the NGA summit is the rare type of political event devoid of partisan sniping. The group's 2012 meeting — which comes during an election year steeped in the politics of health care and debt reduction — is different.
While the governors in panel discussions on leadership and education reform struck a tone of friendly bipartisanship, the conversation on the sidelines of the conference was another story. A trio of Democratic governors held a news conference to denounce GOP state executives who choose to opt out of the expansion.
And governors argued they are taking actions on Medicaid expansion that they think are practical decisions made in the best interests of their states — even as they acknowledged that the battle is one largely being waged along party lines.
The Medicaid expansion issue will likely be in the spotlight at the conference Saturday, when the governors attend a health care panel. Already, several governors on both sides of the aisle have made clear that they oppose the expansion, with some arguing against it on policy grounds and others contending that it represents a federal government overreach into state decision-making.
Still others have defended the expansion as a central part of the health law and argue that millions of low-income Americans who would have been newly eligible under the expansion could be left uninsured.
At Friday's news conference, Heineman said "there's going to be 50 different state solutions" on Medicaid and he fears accepting the expansion in Nebraska would mean higher taxes and cuts to education funding.
He then pivoted to argue in favor of the importance of states focusing on preventive care, punctuating the point by reaching into his back pocket and holding up a pedometer.