As Senate Republicans struggle to finalize a health care reform bill, most are not holding the types of freewheeling town hall encounters with constituents that could draw protests over their plan to dismantle major portions of former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
During the current weeklong congressional recess, the Senate’s 52 Republicans have held or scheduled seven town hall meetings, compared with 30 by Democrats, according to townhallproject.com, which tracks and publicizes events where Americans can speak directly with their elected representatives.
“Face-to-face conversations are the most valuable that you can have,” said the group’s founder, Jimmy Dahman, a former Hillary Clinton campaign worker. “We post events for Democrats and Republicans, and we believe that all members of Congress [should] listen to their constituents.”
Demonstrators seek out meetings
Republicans may be cutting back on open-forum events, but demonstrators are undeterred.
“Health care is a human right!” protesters shouted Tuesday in McAllen, Texas, during an Independence Day speech by Republican Senator Ted Cruz.
Cruz later spoke about military veterans’ health care needs at multiple events hosted by Concerned Veterans for America. Entry was limited to ticket-holders, keeping protesters at bay, and the forums’ primary focus was not the Republican push to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania fielded questions on health care Wednesday from a panel of local residents chosen by a Harrisburg television station. In what proved to be a highly structured event, some participants read their questions from cards, and none were allowed follow-up time to challenge Toomey’s answers, which included a denial that the Republican plan would cut funding for a federal health care program benefiting the poor and disabled.
“The federal government will spend more money on Medicaid each and every year, indefinitely, under the Senate plan. But it will grow at a slightly slower pace, and that makes it sustainable,” Toomey said.
Republicans relied heavily on open forums in 2009 to mobilize public sentiment against the Affordable Care Act, which came to be known as Obamacare. John Barrasso, a physician and U.S. senator from Wyoming, led a group of Republican lawmakers who blasted the Democratic bill at a series of town hall meetings across the nation.
“We need the help of the American people,” Barrasso said to thunderous applause in Kenner, Louisiana, in August 2009. “People are here for the right reasons, because we are trying to protect our freedoms.”
Lack of public events
For years a leading proponent of repealing Obamacare, Barrasso helped craft the current Republican health care proposal. No speaking events were listed this week on the senator’s website or his Twitter feed. Efforts to reach his spokespeople were unsuccessful.
In 2009, it was Democrats who found themselves the target of fierce protests.
“If government-run health care doesn’t work in France, doesn’t work in Britain, doesn’t work in Canada, how is it going to work here?” a man asked Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner at a September 2009 town hall.
Now, with polls showing fewer than 1 in 5 Americans supporting the Republican health care plan, Democrats are on the offensive. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill scheduled 10 town hall meetings this week across her state. Democrat Jeff Merkley is holding six in Oregon.
“How about universal, totally affordable, quality health care just by the fact that you are an American citizen?” Merkley said to hearty cheers in Eugene, Oregon, on Wednesday.
Republicans may not be holding many town halls, but they are far from silent. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is running advertisements against Democrats up for re-election next year, attempting to tie them to the policies of one of the chamber’s most liberal members, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“Elizabeth Warren doesn’t think Obamacare goes far enough,” the ad says. “Does Senator [Bill] Nelson [of Florida] agree? He has in the past. Senator Nelson votes with Warren 90 percent of the time. Tell Senator Nelson NO to government health care.”
Republicans are also speaking out on social media.
“#Obamacare’s status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wrote on Twitter. “It demands action. The American people deserve #BetterCare.”
But some efforts have backfired. Indiana’s Republican Party asked people on Facebook to post their “Obamacare horror stories.” Scores responded with praise for the law.
“Thanks to Obamacare, I have health insurance despite my history of breast cancer,” one person wrote.
“I got good coverage for $125 a month. Terrifying!” wrote another.