REAGAN NATIONAL AIRPORT, Virginia — The anti-Trump “resistance” movement is about to get its biggest test in months — and the stakes could hardly be higher.
On Thursday, Senate Republicans released the Better Care Reconciliation Act, which would dramatically reduce subsidies for lower-income Americans while cutting Medicaid and rolling back its expansion under Obamacare. The CBO hasn’t released an estimate of coverage impacts, but the House version of the bill would have resulted in 23 million fewer people getting covered.
The bill’s fate hangs in part on the internal politics of the Republican Senate caucus, and whether the idiosyncratic demands of its members can be met by changes to the legislative text.
But those dynamics — and, as a result, Obamacare’s survival — may in turn depend on whether the anti-Trump movement that took to the streets in such overpowering force in February and in March can again build enough of an outcry to defeat the Republican health care bill.
“This is the biggest test the resistance movement has yet faced,” said Ben Wikler, legislative director for MoveOn.org. “We’ll find out next week is whether the resistance movement, as it is now, is strong enough to pull Republican votes off of major party legislation.”
Left-wing activists and organizers are rushing to rally the troops, with dozens of protests already being held last week and dozens more planned for the next. But time is running out — and the health insurance of millions of Americans is on the line.
“Every senator has a mental Richter scale in which they can measure the scale of the upheaval caused by any political movement. They look to a key set of signals for how destructive an earthquake is going to be,” Wikler said. “The question is whether the resistance can now create not just smoke and mirrors, but the reality of a career-ending political decision for these senators so they vote against this. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is the point of having a resistance.”
Activists see the fact that they’ve made it this far as a sign of the resistance’s strength
A series of mass demonstrations since President Donald Trump’s election have already rocked both his administration and some of the most controversial policies of the Republican Congress.
His executive order on immigration sparked spontaneous protests of thousands of people at airports throughout the US. After his inauguration, the women’s march drew millions of protesters worldwide, shattering records. And dozens of public demonstrations and town halls helped force Speaker Paul Ryan to pull his first attempt to repeal Obamacare in March.
But nobody knows exactly how to gauge the strength of this explosion of grassroots activism, or its staying power as a political force, or even what “it” exactly wants. It’s been months since we saw the kind of overwhelming nationwide outcry that accompanied either the first attempt to pass the health care bill, or that erupted during the women’s march.
But the resistance’s dormancy may not in fact be a sign of its weakness but a sign that it hasn’t needed to rise from its slumber. Murshed Zaheed, political director of the progressive group CREDO, argues that the Senate’s legislative process is itself evidence of the resistance’s strength. McConnell allowed no public debate over the bill, has held no hearings, and tried cramming through the bill in an unprecedented two-week span — all as the bill’s approval ratings hung below 20 percent, at least according to some polls. The inability of congressional Republicans to pass significant legislation is itself a product of their fear of the resistance, he said.
“Despite controlling [Congress and the White House], Republicans have been reduced to scrapping, clawing, and begging to pass this legislation by one or two votes. That alone signifies the power of the resistance,” Zaheed told me. “Because if the resistance didn’t exist, they wouldn’t be in the predicament they are in right now, using unprecedented secrecy to jam through this garbage-fire of a bill.”
In December 2016, shortly after Trump’s election, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that the Republican Congress would move to repeal Obamacare by January or February. That was almost always optimistic, but the fact that it has been delayed until late June is a result of their fear of the public backlash, said Topher Spiro, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a lead advocate against Trumpcare.
“We’ve already stopped it this long. The longer this goes on, the more this thing hangs out there, and the more massive pressure they’ll face at home,” Spiro said. “Each day we delay this bill is a small victory for the resistance.”
Activists spring into action
But organizers now say that they are entering the critical stretch, setting off a “red alert” that has set off alarm bells in Indivisible chapters and advocacy centers throughout the country.
Stephanie Woodward was one of 50 disabled people, many in wheelchairs, arrested and forcibly removed from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office protesting the Republican health bill.
“It was remarkable to watch my friends get carried out for something they believe in,” said Woodward, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, on Thursday night. She and other protesters were going to get pizza after being held for close to 10 hours by Capitol Police. “We are always worried people will get hurt. But that’s the price we have to pay for our people.”
The “die-in” at McConnell’s office, staged by the disability group ADAPT, was just the most dramatic demonstrations of a surge of leftwing advocacy in response to Senate Republicans’ health bill. On Thursday night, close to 50 people rushed out in a hastily staged rally at Reagan National Airport in a desperate attempt to catch Senate Republicans who were flying back to their home-states for the weekend.
Across the country, chapters of the anti-Trump resistance group Indivisible have sprung into action to try to alert the broader public of the bill. In Phoenix, protesters started a campaign called “Until You Walk a Mile in My Panties, You Can't Tell Me What to Do With My Body.” Targeting Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a possible swing vote on the bill, activists hung dozens of panties on Camelback Road in front of his office, according to organizer Patricia Thomas.
Back in the Capitol, an activist surprised Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV), another possibly crucial vote, by pressing her on the medication her daughter would lose should her insurance fall through.
This woman's daughter with cancer would lose her insurance under Trumpcare – and she just confronted her senator over it pic.twitter.com/epX1Z5vTBS— NowThis (@nowthisnews) June 22, 2017
Dozens of Ohioans bused across the country to sit in the offices of Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) to protest the bill. Several demonstrations were held Thursday alone at offices of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). Activists tied to the women’s rights group UltraViolet commissioned a plane to fly over a Cleveland Indians baseball game Friday with a banner reading, “SENATOR PORTMAN: TRUMPCARE HURTS WOMEN.” About 200 people marched to the NYC offices of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Thursday.
"We really want him to throw down everything he has, to whip every single union and have tens of thousands of people in the streets," said Jennifer Flynn Walker of the Center for Popular Democracy, which helped organize the event. "We need civil disobedience on a massive level."
The resistance has been outmaneuvered by Republicans once, and may be again
Left-wing groups believe that a campaign can help derail Republicans’ push to repeal Obamacare in part because they think they’ve already seen what a successful campaign looks like. In March, Speaker Ryan’s first attempt to pass the American Health Care Act failed amid an onslaught of protests, negative media attention, and the relentless jamming of congressional phone lines.
"It was the town halls, and the stories, that convinced me that people might actually stop this bill," Tom Perriello, a former Democratic Congress member, told the Washington Post’s David Weigel at the time.
But after the first attempt to pass the bill failed on the floor, the outcry in the media and liberal groups dissipated with it. House Republicans quietly regrouped, tweaked the bill, and rammed it through the House before the CBO could score it. The media attention and mobilized resistance over the second vote was far diminished from the crescendo that preceded the first doomed effort.
Senate Democrats and other progressive groups are trying to avoid falling into the same trap twice. “Republicans believe they lulled everyone into focusing elsewhere and are meanwhile writing a bill,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) told me in an interview last month.
Next week is expected to bring further demonstrations, though no single major march has emerged to unify them. Susan Robinson, an Indivisible chapter leader in Alabama, has organized a five-day protest at senators’ offices. Their plan is to be at the offices of Sens. Luther Strange (R-AL) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) for 24-hours every day, from Monday until Friday. “Our senators have not responded to our requests for town halls, so we are sitting in,” Robinson said.
Nearly every major city has at least one protest over health care planned in the lead-up to the vote, according to Indivisible’s field guide. In Oklahoma, Indivisible activists staged a die-in in a church in Ponca City Sunday where Sen. James Lankford is set to speak, said Taryn Chubb, the group’s leader. Emails have flooded in from activists in central New York, northern Florida, and rural Colorado planning some action in the next week.
“This is the moment. The moment the ACA will survive or it won’t,” Spiro said at the airport protest, as perplexed passengers looked on en route to their flights at DCA. “I’m exhausted. But it all comes down to this week.”
Anita Cameron, 51, of Rochester, was one of the 50 disabled people arrested in Mitch McConnell’s office on Thursday. She has diabetes and multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. In an interview after being released from Capitol Police headquarters, she talked about the critical window activists had to make a difference.
“We were angry and afraid and wanted to get that message across. But we’ve got to make him see that they're stealing our liberty and that people will die,” Cameron said. “We knew we had to do something. We are desperate. We are fighting for our lives.”