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How Obamacare Helped Define The Early Days Of TPM’s DC Reporting Operation

TPM’s coverage of the Affordable Care Act is a through line that connects the beginning of the Obama era to the final weeks of the Trump presidency.

It also established TPM in the congressional reporting space, where, if you ask the right questions to the right members and frame up their answers smartly, you can compete with outlets that have Hill teams ten times your size.

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The effort to put together health care reform legislation got underway as TPM was building out its D.C. bureau with reporters who could be at the Capitol to do this kind of reporting. The first months of the legislative process advanced at glacial pace in the House, as Brian Beutler, who spearheaded TPM’s Obamacare coverage at the time, recounts.

But once the ball landed in the Senate’s court, and Democrats abandoned a strategy to pick off GOP votes, the dynamics became much more volatile. With 60 seats, just at the threshold to overcome a GOP filibuster, Democrats could not afford to lose a single vote in the Senate. That meant that any single hallway interview could greatly change the public’s understanding of where health care reform was headed, as a single Democratic senator expressing opposition to a piece of the legislation would mean it would need to be reshaped.

TPM was at the Capitol for the early morning, Christmas Eve Senate vote approving of its own health care plan — Beutler had to trek by foot most of the way to the Capitol, as a snow storm had closed many of D.C.’s roads. And TPM continued to follow the fight as it traveled back to the House, as the election of Scott Brown (R-MA) to the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat meant that the lower chamber was going to have swallow what the Senate had given it.

The way that the ACA debate shifted after the law was signed also presented an opportunity for TPM to carve its own space in the media ecosystem, as Republicans launched an unrelenting campaign to attack and sabotage the law. While other outlets rarely went below the surface level of that GOP campaign, TPM was able to break key stories on this effort. TPM also was early to pick up on the signals Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would vote in favor of upholding the law in the 2012 challenge to it.

This continued focus on the GOP’s ACA hysterics put TPM in a good position to cover the Obamacare repeal battle that kicked off the Trump administration. TPM was already well-attuned to the reality that, despite their rhetoric, Republicans had not yet really engaged with the implications of dismantling the law. And with a readership willing to get into the weeds, TPM was often at the front edge of the intra-party policy disputes ultimately doomed the effort. Even though the legislative push to undermine Obamacare died with an August 2017 thumbs down from John McCain, the legal attacks lived on — and TPM won’t rest while they continue.

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