Rather than seize the momentum of an impressive 23-12 Senate vote for Gov. Butch Otter's Idaho-run online insurance marketplace on Feb. 21, House Speaker Scott Bedke laid back.
He postponed a Feb. 25 hearing on House Bill 179, the trailer bill backed by 16 GOP freshmen, in exchange for support of Otter's Senate Bill 1042. Bedke assigned Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood to spend last week combining the two bills and adding friendly amendments agreeable to Otter.
The result - scheduled for introduction Monday in Wood's committee - appears to have withered House opposition and left foes without an obvious champion.
House GOP Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude of rural Ada County still says he can't find anything to like in Otter's plan but admits that no experienced leader has surfaced to rally the opposition.
Vander Woude, the No. 4 House GOP leader, is joined by No. 2 and No. 3 in opposing Otter and Bedke. But Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star and Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane of Nampa sound like beaten puppies.
"I don't like it," Moyle said last week. "But I'm not the leader of any organized opposition."
Said Crane: "Although I am opposed to a state-based exchange, I am not the leader of the opposition and I don't know who is."
In their place, a freshman lawmaker not part of the Gang of 16 is trying to step up: Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls.
"If somebody needed to stick their neck out and be the leader, I would gladly take that on," said Trujillo. "We definitely have our work cut out for us. We need to explain to people that the only way we can keep our state sovereignty is to say no."
Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the leading lobbyist against the exchange, said he's "still hopeful." Hoffman says the Gang of 16's proposal "appears to be unraveling," but freshman Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, said the group is solid.
Bedke's slowdown erased what might have been a persuasive argument for some, particularly the historically large freshman class dealing with a complex issue that has political punch.
"There will be no legitimate basis for criticism of the process," said Wood, R-Burley. "People can't say, 'We didn't have time, they railroaded it through, they're a bunch of bad guys because they didn't want discussion.' There's been more discussion on this issue than on any issue since I've been here."
The review included a working group in 2011 and a task force in 2012, both of which produced bills leading to SB 1042.
Bedke, R-Oakley, said he understands that stretching out the process means another Senate committee hearing and another Senate floor debate, after the six-hour talkfest on Feb. 21. But he said giving opponents a chance to tweak a single bill will make the result less cumbersome and might even pick up votes.
"Any new ideas have to be in good faith, that is to say: No poison pills," Bedke said. "I'm all about a cleaner, streamlined approach."
Amendments could include a hat tip to Oklahoma's lawsuit, which attempts to bring the Affordable Care Act down like a Jenga tower by removing the tax credits and subsidies that support "affordable."
But Wood said hostile amendments to put rulemaking under the direct authority of the Legislature or to limit monthly fees for customers to $5 are unacceptable.
Republicans haven't given up on their opposition to Obamacare, but Bedke hopes to convince a few more to accept the fact that, absent a state exchange, the feds will step in to run one.
"We've got to play the hand we're dealt," Bedke said. "I think it's incumbent on the Legislature to make a bad situation a little better, while looking for a process that's cheaper for Idahoans and keeps jobs in Idaho."
Bedke appears on the verge of winning his first big fight as speaker, after unseating the House's leading state-exchange opponent, former Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, in December.
But bet on this: Bedke doesn't just want 36 votes in the 70-member House. He'll be watching whether a majority of his 57-member GOP caucus sides with its new speaker, and, better yet, whether there are 36 Republican votes for Otter's plan.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics