Congress is back in town on Monday after a week-long July Fourth recess that was — at least for most Senate Republicans — anything but a restful break from the health care debate roiling Capitol Hill. Senators ran into constituents at Independence Day parades who urged them to reject the GOP health bill.
At the few town halls GOP senators held, opponents to the health care bill yelled their objections. Not a single person spoke in favor of the bill at Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran’s town hall. If senators didn’t hold town halls, objectors made their voices heard anyway. On Thursday alone, about 50 protesters were arrested in acts of civil disobedience staged by more than 1,000 people in over 21 states.
There will be no escape in Washington. When Congress returns, 100-plus activists plan to stage sit-ins in the Capitol Hill offices of more than 20 GOP Senate offices on Monday, according to the Center for Popular Democracy.
Two weeks ago, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released the revised text of the Better Care Reconciliation Act, left-wing organizers worried whether they could mobilize a response in time to fight it. “This is the biggest test the resistance movement has yet faced,” said Ben Wikler, legislative director for MoveOn.org, at the time. “We’ll find out next week whether the resistance movement, as it is now, is strong enough to pull Republican votes off of major party legislation.”
They’ve met the challenge. It’s hard to keep track of exactly how many protests, sit-ins, rallies, and demonstrations have been held in the past two weeks, but a Vox count puts the number well over 50.
Those efforts appear to be making a difference. The grassroots uprising has pushed health care onto the front pages — and key senators are starting to voice doubts about the bill’s passage.
Senate Republicans face crowds furious over Medicaid cuts
Across the country, Republican lawmakers spent their July Fourth recesses buried under an avalanche of protests and activism over the health care bill.
In Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake agreed to speak on the phone with about 10 disability rights activists in wheelchairs who had entered his office in Phoenix and refused to leave for more than 10 straight hours. In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins marched in a July Fourth parade and faced a bevy of complaints about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. (Health care was the only issue any constituent wanted to discuss, Collins said.) A day later, she said that she wanted the bill “dramatically changed.” Collins had previously announced her opposition to the bill, on June 26.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) admitted to a local TV station that he “didn’t expect Donald Trump to win. ... So we didn’t expect to be in this situation.”
The most dramatic and vivid example may have been in Kansas, where Moran struggled with a hostile crowd even in his deeply red state. As the Washington Post’s David Weigel documented, Moran went to some lengths to separate himself from both the substance and the process of McConnell’s bill:
The people who crowded in and around Palco’s community center aimed to prove that there was no demand for a repeal of the ACA, even in the reddest parts of a deep red state. ...
The setting made the dissent, and Moran’s careful positioning, verge on surreal. Palco is in Kansas’s rural Republican heartland, miles from Moran’s hometown of Plainville. The visitors from eastern Kansas, and the local Democrats from nearby Hays, found themselves next to Moran’s old roommate, some high school friends and a physician. All of it took place in Rooks County, which gave Donald Trump a 73-point landslide over Hillary Clinton last year; Moran beat a token Democratic opponent by 79 points.
Moran was the only Republican senator to hold an unscreened town hall this July Fourth recess, according to the Post. The major local papers in Kansas gave the health care protest front-page coverage (as did those in Colorado and Maine over the separate incidents):
Nobody knows exactly what will happen with the Senate back in town, but both the moderates and conservatives in McConnell’s caucus have ratcheted up their demands. With even usually reliable GOP votes like Moran and Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) formally opposing the bill, the majority leader appears to be as far from a deal as ever.
Activists mobilized — and got creative
Behind the outpouring of grassroots activism has been a concerted mobilization from left-wing activists, women’s groups, socialist organizations, and people with disabilities who need Medicaid to function in their daily lives.
When McConnell first moved to pass the bill under a veil of secrecy, many left-wing leaders worried that his tactics meant the resistance’s ability to effectively respond would be short-circuited.
Activists caught on — and escalated their response. Perhaps the most consistently ferocious opposition to the BCRA has been mounted by a national disability rights organization called ADAPT. Over the past two weeks alone, ADAPT activists particularly fearful of the bill’s Medicaid cuts have:
- Garnered national news coverage for launching a sit-in in McConnell’s office in DC, which triggered approximately 50 arrests. They screamed, “No cuts to Medicaid!” as police pulled them out of their wheelchairs.
- Staged a 60-hour sit-in at Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner’s office in which 11 activists slept for two consecutive nights in a 15-by-12-foot room, bringing in inflatable pool toys to sleep on.
- On Thursday, four ADAPT activists were arrested in the Houston offices of Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and five were arrested in the Philadelphia offices of Sen. Toomey. That same day, ADAPT also staged sit-ins at Republican offices in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Arkansas.
- On Friday, ADAPT protesters staged a more than 12-hour sit-in at the offices of Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). According to ADAPT, Portman staffers tried to shut down the elevators to his office — so the protesters shut down the elevators to the whole building.
ADAPT’s efforts have been complemented by those of a handful of progressive groups, including Our Revolution, a spinoff group from the Bernie Sanders campaign; UltraViolet, which is focused primarily on reproductive rights; and the Democratic Socialists of America.
“After watching the video of ADAPT getting arrested, I got really upset and I know DSA national was inspired by it,” said Chris Diehn, 29, secretary of Denver DSA, who organized a protest that led to five arrests at Gardner’s office. “I hope it keeps the pressure up and keeps the pressure focused on him.”
Many more actions are planned in the next few weeks. A bus tour will stop in more than a dozen states — including California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Maine, Kentucky, and Wisconsin — to decry the bill. On Friday, EMILY’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Pantsuit Nation announced that they’d be joining Planned Parenthood in a “national day of action” on July 29 to build opposition to the bill.
“I’ve been very happy to see how the voice of badass, kick-ass disability rights activists may be saving our health care system,” said Carrie Anne Lucas, an attorney and one of the ADAPT protesters who spent close to two straight days in Gardner’s Denver office. “I’m not ready to let my guard down yet. But the signs are positive.”