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"We got caught flat-footed": liberals rush to stop a health bill they thought was dead

Inside the last-minute push from the left to block Paul Ryan’s health care bill.

Advocates From MoveOn.org And Others Demonstrate At A 'Kill The Bill' Rally To Demand The House GOP Vote 'No' On Trumpcare At The Capitol Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MoveOn.org

It was around Wednesday afternoon that the left-wing activists at Indivisible realized all their plans for the week were shot. “Everything we had scheduled was chucked out the window,” said Angel Padilla, the group’s co-founder and policy director. “And everything was refocused on defending the ACA.”

Republicans have scheduled a Thursday vote on their bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Liberal groups are making a late, escalated effort to block it, one that goes heavy on protesting members of Congress where they live and work.

It might be too little, too late. Progressives spent weeks watching Republicans struggle to get the votes for Speaker Paul Ryan’s American Health Care Act. And while some have been sounding the alarm about the bill’s chance at passage for more than a week, others had largely moved onto other priorities, thinking the fight over ACA might have already been won.

Along with MoveOn.org, CREDO, and several other progressive advocacy groups, Indivisible helped organize 29 protests scheduled for Thursday at the home offices of Republican House members expected to vote for the bill.

Hundreds of protesters are also expected to flood the Capitol at 12:30 pm — when a floor vote on the bill is scheduled — for a rally to save the ACA. Meanwhile, activists across the country expect to make more than 100,000 phone calls to House Republicans’ offices on Thursday alone, according to a tally based on conversations with six different leading progressive organizations.

“We are going to make clear that voting to repeal health care for millions of Americans is a career-ending vote,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org, in an interview. “They will hear from us that there will be a massive political price for shredding the health care of millions of people."

The resistance killed the first AHCA attempt. Did it let its guard down?

House Republicans Hold Conference Meeting Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

When Ryan’s first stab at replacing Obamacare failed in March, the lion’s share of the credit went to the resistance movement that had unexpectedly emerged to defend Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Activists and protesters began showing up at town halls and berating Republicans. Obamacare’s popularity in polling surged. Op-ed pages brimmed with stories of lives the ACA had saved.

As Vox’s Sarah Kliff wrote at the time in detailing Obamacare’s surprising “resilience,” House Republicans were inundated everywhere they looked by Obamacare defenders:

People who weren’t even signed up for Obamacare turned out at raucous town hall meetings, suddenly ready to defend a law that has never been very popular. ...

But once the ACA was actually threatened, things changed. Obamacare’s popularity went up. More states began fighting to expand Medicaid at the exact moment Republicans wanted to end that program. Obamacare supporters showed up to town halls. They proved that delivering on Obamacare repeal would not be nearly as easy as politicians had expected. It has become a program that millions of Americans rely on — and that makes it awfully difficult to roll back.

When GOP leaders pulled back from a vote on the AHCA in March, progressive groups celebrated. Democrats took a photo jumping in unison outside of the Capitol. “Millions of Americans have embraced progress and do not want to go back,” wrote Faiz Shakir, of the ACLU, after House Republicans abandoned their drive to hold a vote.

Meanwhile, Republicans waited — and began amending the bill to court more votes.

As the bill’s imminence receded, resistance against it waned

Advocates From MoveOn.org And Others Demonstrate At A 'Kill The Bill' Rally To Demand The House GOP Vote 'No' On Trumpcare At The Capitol Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MoveOn.org

As the spotlight shifted to new issues, such as North Korea and tax reform, a few big things changed the dynamic of health care reform. Most importantly, an amendment to allow states to opt out of many Obamacare regulations won converts from the conservative Freedom Caucus.

As the bill’s defenders grew in numbers, its opponents grew quieter.

Every now and then, a report would emerge suggesting Ryan was getting closer to Obamacare repeal, prompting a flare-up of concern on the left. But the unrelenting stream of stories and protests over the ACA has never really come close to resembling its sustained velocity in February and March.

"Everyone went drinking after the first one [AHCA] failed, and I think we got caught flat-footed," said one Democratic Party operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity, in an interview. “The grassroots moved on, and then Republicans moved fast … We’re all now staring at the abyss."

There was a natural reason for the change — it didn’t look at all likely to outside observers that Ryan could corral his caucus, and it’s hard to mobilize people to kill a bill that nobody thinks is alive to begin with. But whether the faded pressure was inevitable or not, it created an opening for Republicans to coalesce around a plan.

Other progressives expressed frustration that, after so many false starts, news reporters appeared to grow desensitized to the possibility of a bill ever gaining close to enough momentum to pass. That, in turn, made it harder for advocacy organizations to generate the same kind of passion among their followers.

"MoveOn and many other groups have been operating in Defcon 5 mode for a week. But most Americans, even progressive activists, weren't aware of the danger. And the media environment that our members live in has made it seem like this moment was almost impossible,” said Wikler, of MoveOn, pointing to a series of tweets he wrote on April 28 warning Americans to recognize that AHCA was far more likely than most were recognizing.

Wikler added: "We've been working around the clock and spending money hand over fist for the last week to head this off. But it would take all of five minutes to string together a series of quotes about how TrumpCare was dead in major front page and prime-time stories from the biggest news outlets.”

The fight will not end even if the bill passes the House

Anti-Trump Activists March To Trump Tower In New York Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

But even if some on the left feel caught off-guard, progressives are mobilizing for one big push Thursday morning before Ryan’s caucus can head to the floor for a vote.

“We’ve been expecting this for a while and hammering the Republican offices with phone calls for weeks,” said Murshed Zaheed, of CREDO. “We’re going to be bringing that to another decibel level on Thursday.”

CREDO is planning to provide what Zaheed calls “aerial cover” to by flooding congressional Republicans’ phone lines with tens of thousands of calls. Scott Dworkin, co-founder of the “Dems Against Trump” political activism group, said he expects his members to lodge 15,000 calls and emails every hour on Thursday about ACA to House Republicans.

Then there are the plans for targeting 29 different Republicans backing AHCA with protests. Two are expected in the home state of Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, a high-profile swing-vote on the bill now expected to back it. There will be five protests against Speaker Ryan throughout different sites in his home state of Wisconsin, including in Appleton, Janesville, Racine, Wausau, and Eau Claire.

Congressional liberals will try to aid the effort. On Thursday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sent out a letter to the rest of the House Democratic caucus reiterating the party’s plan to throw up full opposition to “TrumpCare” for depleting Medicare and driving up premiums for seniors.

Pelosi aide Drew Hammill explained House Democrats’ battle-plan this way: "Message discipline. Keep it simple. Poll tested. Lethal. Tattoo it to their foreheads.”

And progressive advocates are reminding their members that passing it through the House is still just the first step Republicans have to take to making their bill into law.

“If they ram it through on Thursday,” Murshed said, “we’ll target the Senate right away to make sure it’s dead-on-arrival.”

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