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Dozens of activists are driving across the country to attend a Republican senator’s coffee date

President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Meetings At Trump Tower
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH)
Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

Activists across the country are taking extraordinary measures to try to force Republican lawmakers to face them.

Not a single Senate Republican has scheduled a town hall ahead of the party’s self-imposed July 4 deadline to pass its secret health care bill, short-circuiting one of the traditional ways the public can comment on or criticize pending legislation.

In Ohio, a chapter of Indivisible, an anti-Trump resistance group, will bus dozens of people to Washington, DC, on Tuesday. On Wednesday, they will show up at a weekly “constituent coffee” that Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), a crucial vote on health care, holds in the Capitol for out-of-state visitors.

Portman’s coffee meetings are usually quiet, uncontroversial affairs attended by business groups or curious tourists, but Meryl Neiman sees it as a rare opportunity for activists to tell the senator not to vote for Republicans’ health care bill.

“We’ll be in his public space, making a demand, and he’ll be stuck with us,” Neiman said. “He’ll either have to say, ‘No I’m not going to sit down to talk to constituents who took off work to bus from Ohio,’ or he’ll have to answer the hard questions about this bill.”

Portman spokesperson Kevin Smith said the activists are invited to show up and that the senator’s staffers have met more than 75 times with Indivisible activists since the beginning of the year. “All Ohioans are welcome to attend, even partisan Democrats, left-wing activists, and staffers for the Ohio Democratic Party,” Smith said in an email.

Activists are trying to get Republican senators’ attention however they can

Activists like Neiman say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has put them in a bind. Senate Republicans are planning on voting on the health care bill in the next two weeks, so voters have to mobilize now if they’re going to make an impact. But that means they’re protesting something that doesn’t exist, and that the media isn’t covering as an imminent, urgent development — so much of the public is only vaguely aware of it.

At the beginning of 2017, Speaker Paul Ryan took about one month to advance the American Health Care Act in the House. As he did so, Republican House members went back to their districts for town halls and were screamed at, berated, questioned, and denounced with shouts of “Shame! Shame! Shame.” The town halls were vivid displays of the ferocity of opposition to the health care bill in some parts of the country — and helped sink Ryan’s first attempt to pass the bill in March.

But not a single Senate Republican has a town hall scheduled until well after the congressional recess, according to the Town Hall Project, which tracks these events. Not a single Senate Republican on the 13-person working committee drafting the bill has held a town hall since the House passed its bill in May. Only two of them have held a single town hall this year. Overall, 34 Senate Republicans haven’t held a town hall once this year.

Now that Senate Republicans have removed the town hall from the resistance’s arsenal, activists are brainstorming ways to build other weapons. One approach, embraced by former Medicare and Medicaid administrator turned health care activist Andy Slavitt, has been to stage town halls in districts where members of Congress have refused to hold them.

Others have simply showed up at congressional offices uninvited. On Wednesday, anti-AHCA protesters in West Virginia brought 185 waffles to the offices of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). The 185 waffles were meant to symbolize the 185,000 Medicaid beneficiaries at risk because of Capito's "waffling" on health care.

On Friday, hundreds of members of the women's group UltraViolet — which supports reproductive rights and women’s health — held sit-ins at the offices of seven different Republican senators. In Little Rock, Arkansas, dozens of activists stood in the hallways and overflowed the lobby of Sen. Tom Cotton. The Alaska Nurses' Association brought its members to the offices of Sen. Lisa Murkowski. In Denver, dozens of activists crowded the offices of Sen. Cory Gardner, leading his staff to call police. (There have been no reports of arrests.)

This upcoming week will bring more protests. Perhaps the biggest event will be three 24-hour vigils with patients and the elderly, held in succession. The 72-hour event will begin Wednesday at 5 pm with a sit-in at Sen. Portman's office in Cleveland, then carry on with another day-long protest at Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle in New York City, which in turn will be picked up by yet another 24-hour sit-in at the offices of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA).

"Activists are doing everything they can possibly think of to show how scared and concerned they are,” said Claire McAndrew, campaign director with Priorities USA. Indeed, there will be at least six more sit-ins at Toomey offices throughout the state this upcoming week, according to Jennifer Flynn Walker of the Center for Popular Democracy.

Organizers are confident that their efforts could help derail a Republican health care bill with shockingly low approval ratings — given enough time and media attention. But considering the speed and secrecy of McConnell's legislative moves, some activists admit to fearing that their efforts will be too little, too late.