At parades and protests, GOP lawmakers get earful about health care

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EASTPORT, Maine — For the 15th year, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, spent July 4 marching through this town of 1,331, a short boat ride away from Canada. She walked and waved, next to marching bands and Shriner-driven lobster boats. Her constituents cheered — and then asked whether she would vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act.

“There was only one issue. That’s unusual. It’s usually a wide range of issues,” Collins said in an interview after the parade. “I heard, over and over again, encouragement for my stand against the current version of the Senate and House health care bills. People were thanking me, over and over again. ‘Thank you, Susan!’ ‘Stay strong, Susan!’ “

Collins, whose opposition to the Better Care Reconciliation Act helped derail last week’s plans for a quick vote, is being lobbied to smother it and make Congress start over. Republicans, who skipped the usual committee process in the hopes of passing a bill quickly, are spending the Fourth of July recess fending off protesters, low poll numbers and newspaper front pages that warn of shuttered hospitals and 22 million people being shunted off their insurance. It was a bill, Collins said, that she just couldn’t vote for.

“If you took a blank sheet of paper and said, ‘How could we get a bill that would really hammer Maine,’ this would be it,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who walked ahead of Collins in the parade.

Few Republicans have responded like Collins, who let voters know where to find her. Last month, when Congress broke for the long holiday, just four of the Senate’s 52 Republicans — Collins, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, — announced appearances at Fourth of July parades. Just three — Cruz, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., — said they would hold public town hall meetings. All have criticized the bill; three “no” votes would sink it.

Still, the relative scarceness of the senators — more of them joined a delegation to Afghanistan this week than scheduled town halls — challenged the busy liberal “resistance” movement. Since the repeal debate began, protesters have made direct confrontations with elected officials a central part of their opposition to the Republican bill — copying what worked for tea party activists, who packed Democratic town halls during the lengthy 2009-2010 Affordable Care Act debate.

In the run-up to July 4, activists shared details of Republican appearances on sites created by the progressive group Indivisible (“Red, White, and You”) and the crowdsourced Town Hall Project. Democratic senators who spoke at a June 28 rally outside the Capitol repeatedly urged activists to make noise wherever they saw Republicans. It was the protesters, they said, who had repeatedly spoiled Republicans’ plans to pass a bill and move on to tax restructuring. A president who had once floated a special session of Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act had become distracted by feuds with the media. The “resistance,” Democrats said, had not become distracted by anything.

“Thinking back to February recess, it was all we could do to keep up with your energy and follow all the incredible actions you took,” Indivisible organizers wrote in a weekend fundraising message to supporters. “Over June, we were able to [move] methodically to target senators in specific states while also facilitating coordinated actions across the country. And as the delayed bill proves — THIS WORKS!”

Over the weekend, and on July 4, activists had only a few chances to prove it. In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., navigated around an estimated 85 protesters — many organized by Planned Parenthood — to tell Hardin County Republicans that he was still trying to solve the “Rubik’s Cube” called the Better Care Reconciliation Act.

“Obamacare is a disaster,” said McConnell, according to video captured by the Louisville Courier-Journal. “No action is not an option. But what to replace it with is very challenging.”

McConnell did not explain how the Better Care Reconciliation Act might change, and some of the ideas floated to win votes have fallen flat with skeptical lawmakers. The idea of offering subsidies for cheaper plans that did not include the Affordable Care Act’s “essential health benefits,” favored by Cruz as a compromise, did not satisfy Collins.

“If you have a Health Savings Account that is federally funded, that equals the deductible, that can work, but it has to be designed right,” Collins said. “I don’t want to see insurance that’s not really insurance.”

Yet with protesters kept outside, McConnell faced no interruptions or skeptical questions. Cruz faced something else in McAllen, Texas, a city on the Mexican border that had voted heavily for Hillary Clinton last year. Early Tuesday morning, as Cruz grabbed a microphone, protesters behind a short fence waved signs reading “No Transfer of Wealth 4 Our Health” and “No Repeal, No Medicaid Cuts.” Supporters with Cruz gear tried, in vain, to drown them out.

“Isn’t freedom wonderful?” Cruz asked. “In much of the world, if protesters showed up, they would face violent government oppression. In America, we’ve got something different.”

In a follow-up interview with the Texas Tribune, Cruz characterized the protesters as members of “a small group of people on the left who right now are very angry.” Other Republicans used similar language to explain why cutting back on open forums made sense. Some have pivoted to call-in events, where there’s no threat of moments caught on video going viral. Some have cited the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., to argue that public forums would expose them and local police to unnecessary risks.

“The last thing we’re going to do is give in to a lot of left-wing activists and media,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told a radio interviewer last month. “With these security situations, I don’t know how any member of Congress can do a town hall.”

The senators who did appear at Fourth of July events found ways to minimize the risks. Apart from Cruz, all appeared in fairly remote areas; Murkowski and Collins stopped by island towns that could be reached best by planes or ferries.

Heller, the only Republican up for reelection next year in a state President Donald Trump lost, made a horseback appearance in Ely, Nevada, the largest town in a rural county that gave Trump a 53.5-point landslide. Reporters who made the trek heard something that has become rare: Well-wishers asking a senator to vote for the Republican bill. (Heller opposed the first version but is being lobbied to vote for a revision.)

“Glad I could help them get away from the east coast and to one of the most beautiful parts of NV,” Heller tweeted at reporters after the Ely parade.

In Maine and Alaska, where Republican senators came out loud and early against the bill, residents applauded their lawmakers. Murkowski, who has criticized the Better Care Reconciliation Act for defunding Planned Parenthood and cutting Medicaid, was deluged by health care questions as she walked a parade in the small town of Wrangell. Kirk Garbisch, 63, thanked her for being “the voice of reason” and slowing down the bill.

“She’s looking at the issues and not just following party lines,” he said. “There have been so few Republicans who can get in some good reason, rather than blindly following.”

Murkowski was hearing that particular sort of praise again and again. She moved comfortably through a crowd gathered to watch children street-race and lumberjacks saw logs.

“Most people don’t ask, ‘For or against?’ “ she said. “They just say, ‘Make sure you’re taking care of our interests.’ In fairness for those that do the ‘for or against,’ everybody is pretty much [saying] they don’t think this is good for us.”

After the parades, there will be few chances for Better Care Reconciliation Act critics to face their senators during the recess. Cassidy’s town halls have passed and mostly focused on flood relief. Cruz’s events in Texas, sponsored by the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America, require attendees to register first.

Activists are encouraging one another to get more ambitious — and creative. Protesters in Colorado got headlines for sitting down at an office of Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and refusing to leave. The progressive Action Network urged protesters to wage more sit-ins on Thursday.

In New York, two Long Island activist groups are planning “health care cookouts” close to the offices of Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., under the motto “We can’t let seniors, children and people with disabilities GET BURNED!” Topher Spiro, the vice president of health policy at the Center for American Progress, urged activists on Twitter to keep organizing, whether or not Republicans would face them.

“Protesting Trumpcare this week is the pinnacle of democracy and patriotism,” he wrote.

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