PALATKA, Fla. — Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., wearing shiny black cowboy boots and a suit, was prepared to defend his opposition to President Trump’s health care overhaul to dozens of his conservative, Trump-backing constituents at a town hall Tuesday night.
But Yoho, a former large-animal veterinarian who towers above most of his constituents, found he didn’t really have to.
“The Freedom Caucus? Yes, I’m a member of that,” he answered one man who asked if he was planning to influence the health care debate going forward as a member of the conservative group. “I think we wield a pretty big stick.”
Trump has used his own influence to take aim squarely at the Freedom Caucus, using Twitter to urge his millions of followers to “fight” Democrats and the conservative group in the upcoming elections.
The new president was angry after the GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare failed to gain enough support for a vote. The Freedom Caucus’ approximately 40 members were among the loudest Republican critics of the bill, though about half eventually said they would vote for the legislation under pressure from Trump.
Yoho was one of the holdouts, refusing to buckle and support the plan.
Many of the people who came out to see Yoho at his town hall, in solidly red Putnam County, were ardent Trump supporters, but few blamed Yoho for opposing the unpopular bill.
“I totally supported Congressman Yoho being against that health care bill,” said Kalena, a local resident who declined to give her last name. “It was crap.”
Kalena didn’t blame the president for the failure to repeal Obamacare, either.
“I think [House Speaker] Paul Ryan convinced the president that we needed to move faster than we needed to,” she said. “I think that’s probably the first time in Donald Trump’s life that he was disappointed.”
“Ted ran on doing away with health care, and he felt that [the bill] was just a Band-Aid,” said Fred Moulton, a local cattle rancher.
The few constituents who wanted Yoho to get on board with the bill, like Moulton’s wife, Edic, were not angry enough about it to withdraw their support from the congressman. “I supported Donald Trump on that because I feel when you become a politician, you have to compromise,” she said. Edic Moulton remembered attending a Trump campaign rally in Jacksonville, Fla., and hearing the campaign play the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones. “That resonated with me,” she said. “You don’t always get what you want!” Moulton wants Republicans in Congress to compromise on health care.
Yoho assured his constituents that Obamacare was “not going to stay in existence.” He said he was unable to support a bill that would have raised premiums for older Americans and kept some of Obamacare’s taxes while not addressing the root problem of rising costs. “You’re telling people we’re fixing health care? Give me a break,” Yoho said.
The congressman was also careful to point out that it wasn’t just his group that opposed the bill, underscoring the potentially tight spot he is in if Trump backs primary challengers to Freedom Caucus members. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump dominated in Yoho’s district against a crowded Republican primary field that included home-state Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a conservative stalwart.
“There were only 17 members of [the Freedom Caucus] that weren’t going to support it, but there was over 20 [Republicans] that were not going to support it that weren’t members of the Freedom Caucus,” Yoho said. “We got the blame for it.”
In the days before the planned vote on the American Health Care Act, Yoho says his office received 3,480 calls, with just 214 callers asking him to vote for the GOP bill. The rest of his constituents — either from the right or the left — urged him to vote no.
“Some people are mad we didn’t support the president, but when you explain it to them. … They say, ‘We stand with you on that,’” Yoho told reporters after the town hall.
He explained that he believed the new president had been “misled” into believing that later legislation would bring health care costs down. Yoho didn’t believe those bills would ever pass. Indeed, he told the president he would wash the presidential limo in front of the White House if the GOP leadership’s so-called third bucket of health care legislation passed.
Yoho told reporters he’s pushing for a clean repeal of the Affordable Care Act with a deadline of Jan. 1, 2018, to replace it with as-yet undetermined legislation. “Until they do, that it’s going to be a pitiful two years,” he said.
His opposition to the health care plan did not seemed to mollify any of his district’s Trump critics, many of whom live in Gainesville, home of the University of Florida. On Monday night, hundreds of protesters showed up to his town hall at a middle school on the east side of Gainesville, yelling, “No Yoho!” and demanding he answer questions about his votes against certain environmental regulations, his push to defund Planned Parenthood, and his continued support for fully repealing Obamacare, among other issues.
“I think he voted the right way for the wrong reasons,” said Dahlonega Peck, a plant nursery worker who showed up to his Gainesville town hall to protest him.
At this very different, rowdy town hall, Yoho dropped to one knee on the stage to answer one young woman who said she found his rhetoric “divisive,” and was angry and frustrated about the state of the government.
“I feel your angst, I feel your frustration, trust me,” he said, as the attendees booed and jeered.
Yoho said he had supported Obama when he felt it was right and opposed Trump when it was right as well. “I sat with President Trump, and he wanted me to support this bill and I says, ‘I will not support this bill because it doesn’t do what we said it’s going to do,’” Yoho said, still on one knee. The crowd continued to boo and shout, “No Yoho!”
If you don’t like it, “you could run against me,” Yoho said. An attendee shouted, “We will!”
On Tuesday, Yoho still appeared upset at the amount of anger he saw the night before, even though just a handful of protesters showed up to the town hall in rural Palatka.
“I went over to the Congo and Africa’s got 1.1 billion people on that continent; 650 million people in Africa don’t have electricity,” Yoho told the town hall attendees. “Average income in the Congo is $1.47 a day. I think those people have every right to protest and be mad.”
He added: “We have the privilege and the right to protest in this country, but I hope we put things in perspective about what we’re protesting about.”
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