Payback Time: Dems Try To Hang O’care Repeal Around House GOP’s Neck

Demonstrators lie down during a health care protest outside U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo's offices, Thursday, May 4, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee/AP

The GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act may have moved on to the Senate, but progressive activists across the country remain focused on punishing House Republicans for their vote.

A small handful of the 217 lawmakers who voted for the American Health Care Act are holding town halls this week during the House recess, and they have faced angry crowds. Others are being targeted by protests outside their offices, dozens are the subject of digital and TV attack ads and scathing newspaper editorials, and some have drawn new challengers for the 2018 midterm elections. The activists targeting these lawmakers say they both want them to pay a steep price for their vote but also hope GOP senators hear the message that a vote to repeal Obamacare would be politically toxic.

Ground Zero for the Obamacare repeal bill’s fallout may be the greater Miami area, which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 and where tens of thousands of its residents have gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Two moderate Republicans who represent the area, Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz Balart, voted for the House repeal bill on Thursday after remaining publicly undecided until the final hours. Over the past week, local activists have jammed their phone lines, held protests outside their offices, and canvassed door-to-door against them.

“They can’t get a free pass,” Tomas Kennedy, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union in southern Florida, told TPM. “We’re telling them: There will be consequences for what you did. You’re not representing the interests of the people you were elected to lead.”

Kennedy says based on the intense backlash he has witnessed following the Obamacare repeal vote, hopes are rising for Democrats to flip those two seats—as well as another being vacated by a retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).

“People are really pissed off about this, even Republicans,” Kennedy said. “They’re worried about what’s going to happen to their health care plan. They’re worried about losing protections for pre-existing conditions. They’re worried about losing Medicaid.”

These swingy South Florida districts are among dozens now being targeted by an array of progressive groups, including Indivisible and MoveOn, which have banded together to form The Payback Project. The coalition is working to organize residents whose representatives voted to repeal Obamacare, providing details about the bill’s deep cuts to Medicaid, weakening of protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and defunding of Planned Parenthood.

“Phones will ring off the hook; district offices will be jammed full of angry constituents,” predicted MoveOn’s Ben Wikler. “The American people—the grassroots—have led a fierce and powerful opposition to this bill and they’ll work to be sure this Trumpcare vote blows up in the GOP’s face.”

Less than a week after the House vote, the anger is palpable.

In California, where a handful of House Republicans cast what may have been the deciding votes on the bill, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) got a verbal lashing from constituents afraid of losing their health insurance, and also drew a new Democratic challenger for his seat in 2018.

In Virginia, hundreds of people booed, heckled, and sang songs of protest at Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), a Freedom Caucus member who backed the legislation.

In upstate New York, hundreds of constituents of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a last-minute yes vote on the repeal bill, chanted “Shame!” outside her town hall. In another upstate district, residents upset that Rep. John Faso (R-NY) was not holding a town hall after voting for the legislation invited Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) to talk about the bill in his stead.

This “adopt a district tactic” is spreading. Later this week, Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan will hold a town hall on health care in Rep. Paul Ryan’s Janesville district, where the House speaker has no public events planned. In Arizona, Democrat Ruben Gallego will hold a “rally to stop Trumpcare” in Republican Martha McSally’s district.

Sarah Dohl with the organization Indivisible, which is helping to organize many of these events, told TPM they hope to highlight how few Republicans—just 14 out of 217—are willing to answer for their vote on health care.

“May 4th will go down as the day that many of these Republican House members solidified their fates,” she said. “It’s a real turning point. What’s critical now is continuing to keep on this pressure and educate more people about what is in this awful bill.”

The toxic effect of the health care bill—which would cut more than $800 billion from Medicaid and make some protections for people with pre-exisiting conditions optional—has even hit Republicans not yet in Congress, sending a tremor through a number of closely-watched special House elections.

In Georgia’s 6th district, in the race for the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Republican Karen Handel confirmed she would have voted for the bill. Some pundits on the right predicted that embracing the deeply unpopular legislation could cost her the race. In Montana’s at-large race, Republican Greg Gianforte would not take a public position on the bill, but praised the effort to a group of lobbyists on a private conference call.

“Sounds like we just passed a health care thing, which I’m thankful for, sounds like we’re starting to repeal and replace,” he said, in audio leaked to the New York Times.

His campaign quickly backpedaled once the comments were published, telling reporters: “He couldn’t have voted for a bill without knowing what is in it and how it effects Montanans.”