by Rachael Bade · May 7, 2017
Protesters hold signs and shout at lawmakers walking out of the Capitol on May 4 following the passage of the Obamacare repeal bill. | AP Photo
The House vote to repeal Obamacare is the biggest policy win yet for Donald Trump’s young presidency — and also the biggest challenge for the movement working to defeat him.
Anti-Trump activists had cheered when they helped blunt House Republicans’ initial effort to pass a bill. Now opposition groups face an exhausting juggling act, keeping their members engaged during a long and uncertain health care push in the Senate while also not losing sight of the vulnerable House Republicans who voted to shred Obamacare.
Activists insist that the nation’s sprawling liberal grass roots is ready for both battles and is far from discouraged by last week’s loss. And by continuing to vent anger at House Republicans who voted for the bill, they say, they’ll show centrist GOP senators the price of going down a similar path.
“The progressive movement definitely has to work hard” to make sure “nobody loses sight of the consequences of this bill, and to impress those consequences upon every senator,” Organizing for Action spokesman Jesse Lehrich said in an interview. “But at the end of the day, I think this whole repeal effort will prove to be a self-inflicted wound of epic proportions.”
The immediate fury that followed the House vote suggests that the Democratic base isn’t going anywhere. The liberal fundraising website ActBlue helped affiliates raise more than $2 million in less than a day, cash that will be stored for the eventual challengers to more than 24 House Republicans who supported the American Health Care Act. The progressive group CREDO Action said its members made more than 10,000 phone calls to the Hill on Thursday alone.
Liberal leaders want to aim as much firepower as they can at House Republicans who backed the bill, particularly the 14 whose districts Hillary Clinton won in November. They’re betting that more moderate or endangered incumbents such as Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) will be watching and taking notes.
“The surest way to get senators to back away from plans to repeal health care is for them to see the consequences House members paid with constituents for doing it,” veteran Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said in an interview.
Progressive groups are touting more than 75 demonstrations already slated for this weekend, largely aimed at stoking in-district ire at pro-repeal House Republicans such as Reps. Bruce Poliquin of Maine, Martha McSally of Arizona and Jim Renacci of Ohio.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is doing its part to build on the activist energy, running non-skippable digital ads against the House bill aimed at its top two 2018 targets, Heller and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Murshed Zaheed, CREDO’s political director, vowed that “heat is coming, and it’s coming hard” against a handful of targeted Republican senators, many of whom have stayed out of the House repeal debate so far or openly criticized the House bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can lose only two members of his 52-member conference and still pass a repeal bill, thanks to powerful budget reconciliation procedures Republicans are using that can circumvent a Democratic filibuster.
The run-up to the House repeal vote tested the planning skills of activist groups that brought thousands of people into the streets on two straight weekends after Trump signed his travel ban order in January and turned out millions of demonstrators worldwide for the post-inauguration Women’s March.
MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood and other progressive groups initially scheduled demonstrations outside the district offices of 20 House Republicans before adding a midday rally outside the Capitol that drew more than 200 people as well as more than a half-dozen congressional Democratic leaders.
The rally ended up generating a nightmare photo op for House Republicans, who exited the Capitol for their weeklong recess to chants from the assembled crowd of “shame, shame” and “2018.”
But organizers might not have been able to mobilize the show of force they desired since the timing and outcome of the Obamacare repeal vote remained up in the air until Thursday morning.
“We tried to sound the alarm everywhere” during the weekend before the House GOP made its final, successful push to pass a bill, MoveOn Washington director Ben Wikler told POLITICO.
He even took to Twitter to warn fellow liberals that “folks don’t realize how close the GOP is to repealing the affordable care act right now” — six days before the House finally voted.
“Across the country, it didn’t feel like we were in an emergency,” Wikler added. “It felt like Republicans kept trying and failing.”
Indivisible co-founder Angel Padilla, whose group became a locus of the anti-Trump movement by organizing local chapters to storm congressional town halls, has sought to readjust activists’ expectations after the setback of the House repeal vote.
The Affordable Care Act “is still the law of the land,” Padilla noted in an interview, and activist groups can claim victory after forcing the GOP off course for months.
“We thought, ‘Oh, God, we’re going to lose ACA on Day One,’” Padilla added. “It shows how strong the citizens’ movement has been that we’re in May and they’re still squeaking it by.”
The strength of anti-Trump groups will be challenged anew by the Senate’s treatment of Obamacare.
As much as liberal activists relish GOP senators’ dismissive attitude toward the House repeal plan, many also expect the House to swallow any bill that the upper chamber is able to push through.
That leaves the Senate as the last chance for Trump foes to save Democrats’ landmark health care law. Liberal groups expected as much before Inauguration Day, but the unexpected gift of House Republicans’ early stumbles bred confidence that has now hardened into commitment to win.
“This drawn-out process may not be as sexy as a million people marching in the capital,” Lehrich of OFA said, “but it’s actually got a better chance of scaring senators off of voting for this thing when they go back to their states.”
Wikler phrased the lesson bluntly: “It’s time to relearn the lesson of 2016, which is: Take nothing for granted.”