Republicans eager to flee Capitol Hill after squandering weeks on failed negotiations to repeal Obamacare are finding little refuge at home, where furious throngs of liberal constituents await. Halfway through the two-week Easter break, it’s clear that the energy on the left to protect Barack Obama’s health care law — and oppose President Donald Trump — is still soaring.
But for the first time, pro-Obamacare constituents have a specific target: the American Health Care Act. GOP lawmakers now face town halls after debuting a real piece of legislation to gut Obamacare, which added to the urgency and anger of the protests that greeted Republicans as they scattered across the country.
POLITICO reporters traveled to nearly a dozen town halls to document the tumultuous homecoming Republicans faced. Here are four takeaways from Congress’ first week on the road, with reporting from Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, New Jersey, New York and Texas.
1) Republican AHCA critics sharpened their skepticism of the bill
As Republican leaders eye an attempt to salvage their plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, they now are likely to have even more difficulty winning over wayward members.
Republicans who opposed the bill, which was abruptly pulled from the floor last month, soaked up some support from their left-leaning constituents. They also vowed to protect Obamacare provisions that cover people with preexisting conditions.
That could make it harder for centrists to find common ground with hard-line conservatives who are seeking to sharply weaken Obamacare’s insurance mandates and regulations, including on preexisting conditions protections.
But across all factions of the divided Republican Conference, lawmakers found one common way to generate applause from a hostile crowd: criticize the AHCA.
Mainstream GOP Rep. David Young of Iowa found friends in his crowd who appreciated his decision to stake out opposition to the measure. Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, earned grudging support for suggesting he’d even prefer single-payer health care — which he hates — to Speaker Paul Ryan’s bill.
Centrist Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey, who faced scorn for his initial support of the measure, earned some rare applause when he promised to reject any health care legislation that undermines coverage guarantees for people with preexisting conditions.
Lance’s experience illustrates the danger for any moderate Republicans who flirt with gutting Obamacare. He backed the measure when it traveled through the House Energy and Commerce Committee — and his constituents made sure he didn’t forget it. Though Lance ultimately pledged to reject the AHCA, he still found himself fending off attacks.
“I want you, and all of the Republicans, to sit down with the Democrats and fix the Affordable Care Act,” said Janet Katz of Chester, New Jersey, summing up the crowd’s sentiment. “I want this repeal crap to stop.”
For moderates on record supporting the AHCA, the anger was palpable.
Constituents grilled Colorado centrist Republican Rep. Mike Coffman for supporting the Ryan bill at a frequently chaotic town hall on the outskirts of Denver. Even a man who called himself a “life-long registered Republican” stood up to shame Coffman for backing a measure he felt was too conservative for their district, which leans slightly Democratic.
The room exploded with cheers when one person asked: “Will you commit to limiting premiums for people with pre-existing conditions so that they can actually afford health insurance?”
Coffman tried to reassure the skeptical audience that people with histories of medical problems would be OK under the GOP plan, but it was largely in vain.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), one of the few hard-line conservatives to ultimately endorse the AHCA, also got shouted down in his Texas district.
“No, not true!” constituents yelled when he said the federal government had failed at administering the health care law.
2) The House GOP’s civil war is getting noticed beyond the Beltway
Americans have long watched from afar as feuding Republican factions have battled each other. But after the pivotal role played by the far-right House Freedom Caucus in sidelining the GOP health care bill, constituents are taking note of the schisms that drive the House Republican Conference.
During Coffman’s town hall, more than 1,600 miles from Washington, D.C., a young woman stood up to ask the Colorado Republican whether he was part of the Freedom Caucus — which doesn’t post its full membership list — or the Tuesday Group, a 50-member band of moderate Republicans.
She also asked whether it was appropriate for lawmakers to join these “secret societies.”
Coffman appeared caught off guard by the question.
“Secret societies? Whoa!” he exclaimed.
Coffman acknowledged being part of the Tuesday Group but quickly noted he was also a member of the bipartisan “No Labels” caucus.
That constituents are asking about the various factions in the House GOP Conference demonstrates just how ugly the intraparty fighting has gotten.
Trump may also be driving the Freedom Caucus’ newfound notoriety. After Ryan was forced to pull his Obamacare alternative due to opposition from the caucus as well as a number of moderates, Trump began tweet-shaming the conservative group. He told his millions of followers that the hard-liners were blocking his agenda, and at least one White House aide even called for primary challengers to boot some of the group’s members from office.
Yoho told his crowd he felt the Freedom Caucus was unfairly earning a bad rap.
“Yes, we wanted to be there for the president. Yes, we wanted to fix health care. But this wasn’t going to do it,” he said. “So, we had to go against supporting a brand new president that so many of our supporters put into office, to go against that and tell the president of the United States, ‘Sir, this does not repeal Obamacare.’”
3) Republicans have gotten better at handling hostile crowds
Lawmakers were startled by the ferocity of the protests that greeted them at home in February.
Raucous town halls led to viral moments like California Rep. Tom McClintock fleeing under heavy guard and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton getting dressed down by an attendee who supports Obamacare.
This time, they were ready. They phoned in local police, imposed new security measures and tightened attendance availability, and it worked, to an extent.
Republicans across the country appeared much more comfortable and better prepared to deal with noisy town hall crowds. Yoho didn’t fire back when he was overwhelmed by angry constituents and protesters. Rather, he’d get down on one knee and gaze directly at his questioner, absorbing any heckling until he could finish his answer. Others defused tension with jokes, waiting out hecklers or pivoting to safe talking points.
“Let’s do some more!” Coffman said when the moderator called for one last question, at an event that had already gone 45 minutes late. It was a stark contrast from a few months ago, when Coffman escaped out the back door of a town hall event that had been overrun by protesters.
Part of that newfound confidence is due to increased vetting of town hall attendees.
Coffman’s constituents, for instance, had to register and show their IDs at the door to prove they were actually constituents. Policemen also stood by and watched from the top of the auditorium. In one instance, they even escorted out a woman who make a ruckus about Coffman’s views on climate change.
At Lance’s event, a large security contingent confiscated signs from attendees. A ticketing system also appeared to limit the number of attendees, though Lance said he thought the somewhat smaller crowd size was because people were celebrating Passover.
Rep. John Faso, who helped secure the bill’s much-maligned “Buffalo Bribe” to force the state of New York to pay more in Medicaid spending, opted for a television studio that could fit only about 70 constituents.
When the New York Republican took heat for not holding a conventional town hall-style meeting, he argued his televised gathering was “a much more effective means of communicating” that would ensure “a civil discourse back and forth.”
And in tiny Troy, Ohio, the local conservative group that hosted GOP Rep. Warren Davidson’s event fought to maintain order amid protesters and hecklers.
But unlike in many of the events across the country, Davidson’s crowd was largely supportive of the freshman Freedom Caucus member. About two-thirds of the audience remained after Davidson’s critics walked out en masse after he criticized Obamacare.
There were, of course, other moments of tension around the country.
Rep. Joe Wilson — who famously shouted “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during an address to Congress — was greeted with the same chant from his constituents. Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin took flak when he said it was “bullcrap” that taxpayers pay his salary.
4) Taking on Trump is a winner for Republicans
If Republicans were ever in need of a lifeline, challenging the president worked wonders in just about every town hall.
Yoho, for example, said he now supports a measure that would compel presidential candidates, including Trump, to release their tax returns — and said he was convinced to do so by a liberal activist who urged him to ensure the president isn’t participating in any “funny business.”
“She changed my opinion,” Yoho said to applause.
It was one of several breaks from the Trump administration that were crowd-pleasers for the left-leaning attendees.
Coffman became the first Republican lawmaker to call for the firing of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, for an ill-considered comparison between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Adolf Hitler. Spicer later apologized, but Coffman wasn’t satisfied.
“He needs to go,” the Coloradan said to cheers, though they soon faded as talk turned back to health care.
Victoria Colliver, Daniel Ducassi, Sarah Karlin-Smith, Renuka Rayasam, Elana Schor and Josefa Velasquez contributed to this report.
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