Since the health care debate began, advocacy groups, liberal organizations, and “resistance” leaders have waged an all-out war against the GOP health care bill — staging sit-ins, clogging the airwaves, and organizing mass acts of civil disobedience across the country. Given that Republicans have full control of Congress, it’s been their only hope.
“We want these staffers to feel as if they’re under siege from the rest of America, from a country that hates this bill,” said Murshed Zaheed, political director of the progressive advocacy group CREDO.
Much harder to tell is whether all of that sound and fury has been effective. Activists insist that the protests are a big part of why the Obamacare repeal train still hasn’t left the station. But even some of the Republican senators they’re targeting admit they’ve had an impact and helped change minds.
“I think the concern of citizens generally has made an impact on me, yeah. Obviously, I get it a lot of feedback from the other side, too, in editorials and newspapers like the Wall Street Journal attacking me,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), one of the crucial swing votes on the bill. “And then you have the protesters on the other side ... those voices are heard, absolutely.”
It’s hard to keep an exact tally of the flurry of health care activism since Republicans took control of Congress. Daily Action, one progressive group, reported 200,000 calls — which, when added together, would stretch to a combined 495 days of call times — to Senate GOP offices over the health bill. Dozens of activists with disabilities have been arrested at sit-ins protesting Medicaid cuts throughout the country.
More than 400 protesters have been arrested in the Capitol alone over the past three weeks, including the NAACP’s William Barber. Activists have chartered planes to fly anti-TrumpCare banners in West Virginia and Ohio; others have driven anti-TrumpCare tractors or launched cross-state bus tours.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) emphasized that he thought these efforts were misguided, the product of those led astray by “those on the left have done a really good job selling fear and division.”
Even so, he freely admitted that he believes what they’re doing is working. “It’s unfortunately inconsistent with reality, but it does motivate people, including in here,” Scott said. “You should always be impacted, in my opinion, by your constituents calling in about an issue — whether you agree with them or not.”
Scott argued that there’d be something broken about the Senate if its members ignored its constituents. “Our goal is to serve everyone in our states, so we’re always impacted, to a lesser or to a greater degree,” Scott said. “I’m always moved by moms who have serious concerns and thoughts about the health care debate.”
Similarly, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said Senate Republicans have privately admitted to him that the resistance’s pressure is making a difference. “They’ve been listening, and they’ve been impressed by the level of activism and the intensity of interest,” Blumenthal said in a tram below the Capitol Tuesday afternoon about Senate Republicans. “The apparent defeat of the Republican health care proposal is due to [that] energy and passion.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) added: "People are speaking out from their heart and that has been very, very effective. They've had to see what effect this will have on people's lives."
“It’s childish”: how many Senate Republicans view the health care protesters
A lot of Republicans insist that the protests, arrests, and yelling is pointless. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) had to hold back a laugh when asked if activists’ mobilization against the bill made it harder for Republicans to support.
“Oh, no, no, no. Definitely not. It’s childish. It has the opposite effect,” he said.
More than 100 protesters were arrested in the Russell Senate Office Building on Wednesday alone. Inhofe said he believed that attempted sacrifice likely backfired.
“For people with no information and no knowledge coming and yelling and screaming without having any idea of what the issue is, or what might be in a health care bill — I’ve found that to be characteristic — though maybe I’m biased because it doesn’t affect me,” Inhofe said. “But, no, I don’t think it has an effect.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) agreed. “We don’t mind the noise,” he said of the protesters, before adding that he didn’t think they were stalling the bill.
“It was difficult before they got here,” added Don Stewart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s deputy chief of staff, of the protesters.
Activists see their strategy validated
These senators’ apparent admission — that grassroots pressure affected their votes — stunned some of the organizers most responsible for encouraging it.
“I've been an activist a long time,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org. “Targets of activism admitting it's had an impact on them? That never happens.“
Back on January 10, Wikler sent out an internal strategy memo to other liberal activists laying out their plan to defeat the health bill. "Track GOP senators and even members of Congress to identify moments when they'll appear in public," the email said. "Keep some capacity uncommitted and an organizing plan ready to be able to move dozens of people when the moment comes."
The resistance ramped up their efforts over the health care bill during the July 4 recess, when Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) was confronted by activists and constituents, including his daughters’ pediatrician, at a town hall in a deeply red part of his district. Though he’s couched his objections in conservative terms, Moran has suddenly flipped against the bill — as ThinkProgress’s Kira Lerner wrote, “the work by constituents in his state played a part in killing the legislation that cannot be discounted.”
The protests continued once senators came back to work, and another set of protests is planned for this weekend. Activists had no doubts that what they were doing was shaping the course of legislation.
“It’s been absolutely essential, and it will be critical going forward,” said Carol Paris, 64, president of Physicians for a National Health Program, as she marched into Sen. Shelley Capito’s (R-WV) office, about the grassroots push against the bill on Wednesday.
Five minutes later, about 100 feet down the hall, 21-year-old Savannah Dysard was one of 15 or so activists shouting about Medicaid outside the offices of Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).
“Once the GOP saw a face and a story — once they started seeing us here — they started questioning the bill,” Dysard said. “And I think it’s made all the difference.”