Senate Democrats immediately launched a full-scale attack on Thursday against the GOP plan to repeal Obamacare, foreshadowing their aggressive combination of messaging and tactics that will consume the chamber in the coming days.
Their assault against the Republicans’ "Better Care Reconciliation Act" will also fan out to their home states this weekend, with targeted events aimed at pressuring Republicans and drumming up opposition against the measure unveiled Thursday.
There’s Sen. Bob Casey’s (D-Pa.) Friday rally in Harrisburg featuring the state’s insurance commissioner and advocates for people with disabilities. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is holding an "emergency" roundtable in Richmond with those who’ll be affected by the Republican health care plan. And Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) plans to appear with law enforcement officials to highlight the need to combat opioid addiction.
"More people nationally died of opioid overdose in 2016 than in the entire Vietnam War. And this takes away our best tool to combat it," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. "I don’t know how senators are possibly going to vote for it."
The Democratic pushback began almost immediately on Thursday when the minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and nearly 30 of his Democratic colleagues sped to the floor to lambaste the 142-page health care bill that was released less than an hour before by Republicans. They quickly outlined their objections that they had been pushing for weeks: Deep cuts to Medicaid, a lack of protection for pre-existing conditions, tax breaks for the wealthy.
“It’s every bit as bad as the House bill. In some ways, it’s even worse,” Schumer said. “The president said the Senate bill needed heart. The way this bill cuts health care is heartless. The president said the House bill was mean. The Senate bill may be meaner.”
As the Senate GOP’s health care bill hit the public eye Thursday, dozens of disability rights activists — including several in wheelchairs — staged a "die-in" protest at the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). After the Capitol Police arrived on the scene, they carried away some disabled demonstrators who had hoisted banners slamming Republicans’ massive proposed Medicaid cuts.
Capitol Police arrested 43 people at the protest, who were charged with crowding, obstructing or incommoding, according to a spokeswoman.
Yet even as some liberals criticized the GOP bill as beyond broken, focusing on peeling off three Republicans who might oppose even taking it up next week, some moderate Democrats facing reelection next year said the caucus should turn its attention to crafting amendments that might succeed during floor debate.
"Absolutely we should be thinking about, how do we improve it," Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in an interview. "We get one crack at any type of … a normal process. There’s nothing normal about this bill, okay? But if that’s the one shot you get, you take it."
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) agreed: "We’ve got to have a solid debate on it, with as many amendments as we can to improve access to affordability," he said in an interview.
Tester dismissed the push to drive a wedge among Republicans dissatisfied with their leadership’s repeal bill as "just a stall tactic" that’s unlikely to succeed.
But Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy is among the Democrats who want to hold off on crafting floor strategy until Republicans figure out a way around their own internal differences over Obamacare repeal.
"I don’t think they have 50 votes yet, and we’re going to do everything in our power to stop this bill from getting there," Murphy said in an interview.
McConnell has not ruled out shutting down Democrats if they try to leverage their procedural power to offer unlimited amendments into an endless barrage. Murphy said the caucus should risk a potentially precedent-setting ruling from the GOP if necessary.
"McConnell’s willingness to change the rules should have no bearing on the tactics we choose to deploy," Murphy added.
After delivering his remarks against the GOP health care measure Thursday, Schumer and his top deputies lined up to make repeated procedural demands to jam it up.
First, Schumer tried to block consideration of the measure until it had been on a website for 72 hours and the Congressional Budget Office had produced its analysis of the bill. (The CBO is expected to release its estimate early next week). McConnell promptly objected.
Then Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) pushed for a requirement of 60 votes to waive any budget point of orders. That was also denied.
Later, Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, tried to block the bill until it went through a committee hearing, with both Republicans and Democrats having a chance to offer changes. Again, that was denied.
“None of these senators have read the bill,” complained Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), referring to Democrats. “What they’re talking about is a bill that does not exist, which they have not read."