House Republicans celebrated passing legislation to repeal Obamacare last week — but apparently forgot to figure out how to talk about the feat back home.
The result has been a messaging mess, as lawmakers returned to their districts for a weeklong recess to face furious Obamacare defenders.
In interviews and at town halls packed with pro-Obamacare protesters, Republicans have struggled to explain the plan they just approved. Lawmakers are telling audiences conflicting things about how the bill would affect consumers. Others slammed a process they actively participated in or admitted they hadn’t read the entire bill before voting on it — even though GOP leaders spent months hawking a website called ReadTheBill.gop.
Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) told frustrated constituents on Monday that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care” — a gaffe he quickly walked back a day later. Labrador announced his candidacy for Idaho governor on Tuesday morning, and Democrats are already planning to use the comments against him.
Though many of the lawmakers who backed the legislation immediately shuttled to the White House to celebrate in the Rose Garden alongside President Donald Trump, they’re still grappling with what to tell their constituents about it. There’s even disagreement within the ranks over whether they should’ve taken a victory lap for a bill that still has to go through the Senate, where it’s likely to be substantially rewritten.
“I don’t think it’s something to celebrate,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said Tuesday on New York radio station WABC. “I think there are still improvements that have to be made in it. But it’s too serious a topic to be out there having a celebration on it.”
House leaders opted against arming GOP lawmakers with talking points heading into their early-May recess week. Instead, leaders organized a question-and-answer session for members, led by lawmakers who authored the bill. The session, they believed, would address last-minute changes to the measure and frame potential responses to concerns from constituents.
GOP leaders have also been pointing members and staff to ReadTheBill.gop to brush up on how the measure would protect people with preexisting conditions and other issues.
Nonetheless, lawmakers have given a mishmash of responses about the significance of the most important vote they’ve taken so far this year.
At one town hall this week, Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) agreed with a constituent who described the bill’s approval as “rushed.” He said he backed the measure because it was preferable to Obamacare, but he ripped the process that House leaders employed to push the bill through — without hearings and lacking updated fiscal analysis from the Congressional Budget Office.
“It was rushed, and there should have been hearings,” Blum told a crowd packed with Obamacare supporters.
Rep. Jeff Denham of California, one of 23 Republicans representing a district won by Hillary Clinton last year, told constituents that the legislation, which was approved without a single Democratic vote, passed after a “bipartisan” process. In North Dakota, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer said the bill’s shortcomings were the result of arcane Senate budget rules that prohibited an up-or-down vote on repealing Obamacare altogether.
And in TV interviews the day the AHCA passed the House, Reps. Tom Garrett (R-Va.) and Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) said they didn’t believe any of their colleagues had read the entire text before passing the bill.
Garrett, a member of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, defended his comments on Tuesday during a town hall in tiny Moneta, Virginia. He was pressed about conservatives’ past vows to provide ample time to read legislation.
“Not only did our team read that bill,” Garrett said, “I would wager that if you line me up against any member of either party as it relates to the intricacies of the [bill] … I could acquit myself very well.”
Garrett faced a town hall packed with Obamacare supporters who interrupted repeatedly as he defended the plan. One constituent said her father lived with brain cancer for eight years before dying of pneumonia.
“But if he had lost those benefits at any point in the eight years he had cancer, there’s no way he would’ve gotten coverage,” the constituent said. “What did my dad do to make you think that he deserved to pay more — would’ve deserved to pay more because he got sick?”
Garrett responded by recounting his mother’s lengthy battle with cancer, which she survived.
“I won’t discount anyone’s personal story,” he said, adding that while he may differ with some constituents on the legislative remedy, it’s “an honest disagreement.”
For many Republicans, including those from competitive districts who voted in favor of the GOP plan, the safer choice was to skip town halls altogether. Those who did hold them often earned constituents’ grudging respect for at least showing up.
Cramer, at his event in North Dakota, answered detailed questions about the tax credit system that the Republican plan would create, as well as why he disagrees with calls for a universal health care system. When one constituent asked him how the bill would guarantee health care benefits, Cramer replied, “Everybody wants a guarantee that they get what they want. That’s not America.”
Rachael Bade and David Siders contributed to this report.