Less than two weeks ago, it looked like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had figured out how to cripple the resistance.
Republican senators were advancing their health care bill in secret, making it difficult to mobilize opposition to the bill. The media was shrugging at the story. Resistance leaders openly worried that the public would only wake up to the dangers of the bill after it passed.
Then McConnell released the text of the bill to the public. With a boost from Senate Democrats, resistance leaders punched back — hard. Activists unleashed a wave of protests, civil disobedience, phone calls, and demonstrations over the bill that reached a scale not seen in the country since March.
By Tuesday, McConnell was forced to postpone the health care vote until after the July 4 recess. “The lion’s share of the credit for postponing this vote goes to all those grassroots organizations mobilized around the country,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) in an interview. “That has made all the difference.”
Republicans have hit pause on their biggest policy priority, to repeal and replace Obamacare, in part because the left set aside their differences to unite behind opposition to the bill. The grassroots had been stalling out amid Republicans’ secretive talks about health care, but once the bill was public, the left and Democratic leadership united behind its opposition.
Whatever unresolved disagreements there are about the party, it shows than when grassroots and elected officials unify in lockstep, they are a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Crucial step: Senate Democrats waged all-out health care war
Between the unfolding Russia scandals and the secrecy of McConnell’s bill, Senate Democrats hadn’t turned their full attention to the health care fight until this week. The mainstream media, perhaps for the same reasons, had dropped the ball too — almost none of the biggest national media publications put the health care bill on its front page while the bill was being debated in secret.
“It was maddening: The train was hurtling down the track and nobody was even glancing up to see if that was more than a sound effect,” recalled Ben Wikler, legislative director of MoveOn.org.
Something changed the following week. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced that he’d begin responding to reporters’ questions about Russia by talking about health care instead. “We’re in the red zone,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) told me. As Attorney General Jeff Sessions headed to the hill to testify, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) urged the country to keep its eye on the health care ball:
My advice today: focus 10% of your attention/outrage on Sessions testimony, 90% on the secret health care bill that is speeding to a vote.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) June 13, 2017
Senate Democrats announced that they’d be withholding consent on unrelated legislation and invoking the “two-hour rule” to limit committee hearings, grinding the body to a halt. It worked. The tactics of obstruction forced the health care story into the newspapers and onto cable television, which in turn made it easier for resistance leaders to organize protests, Wikler said.
It was the first time, activists say, that they were beginning to strike back at McConnell’s strategy of “stealth and speed.”
“Democrats saying they were seriously going to fight unleashed the news cycle, that helped feed the resistance energy, that was then kicked into higher gear,” Wikler said. “That really made a huge difference.”
Activism, civil disobedience, phone calls hit GOP senators all at once
Buoyed by Senate Democrats, activists across the country ramped up the pressure through a blitz of phone calls, protests, and acts of civil disobedience over the past 10 days.
Revolution Messaging reported that it connected 90,000 calls to the Senate to express opposition to the Republican health bill. Politico reported that Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) received 224 phone calls opposed to the bill and only two in support since Thursday. Sen. Murphy reported hundreds of calls against and not a single one in favor.
Across the country, chapters of the anti-Trump resistance group Indivisible have sprung into action to try to alert the broader public to 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.
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.
The most high-profile series of protests were waged by Adapt, a national disabilities rights organization. On Thursday, close to 50 disability activists were arrested in a dramatic sit-in at McConnell’s office and dangerously carried out, leading to national news coverage.
“The American people from coast-to-coast said that this is absolutely unacceptable,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said at a rally outside the Capitol. “We have won a temporary — let me underline, temporary — victory. But because of your efforts, the American people are catching on.”
Over the weekend, Sen. Sanders held health care rallies with more than 1,000 attendees in Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to demonstrate the breadth of opposition to those state’s Republican senators. And that wasn’t all the pressure those GOP senators faced: On Monday, six activists were arrested in a protest in the West Virginia offices of Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. In DC, another woman confronted Capito in her Capitol office, pressing her on the medication her daughter would lose should her insurance fall through.
“She’s been confronted with the human reality of this,” and now she’s a no, Wikler said of Capito.
Senate Democrats and progressive activists are quick to say that they’re not celebrating too soon, emphasizing that the House vote on health care failed before Speaker Paul Ryan managed to secure the votes. But in a fight where they so recently looked sidelined, resistance leaders say they’ve at least regained their footing.
“The danger is so far from over. But the dam has massive cracks in it,” Wikler said. “The momentum is now on the side of the resistance.”