Outside the Capitol, Democrats gear up for battle over health care bill

Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses opponents of the Republican health care overhaul outside the Capitol. (Garance Franke-Ruta/Yahoo News)

WASHINGTON — Twenty House Democrats, eight U.S. senators, and leaders of 19 progressive and labor organizations denounced the Republicans’ Obamacare repeal bill at a rally outside the U.S. Capitol as the House prepared to vote on it Thursday.

The meeting, called the night before by MoveOn and the Indivisible Project, drew an audience of hundreds to hear speakers condemn the American Health Care Act and sketch a path forward for Democratic opponents of the bill that would overhaul the nation’s health care system for the second time in eight years, reversing former President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement.

“These Republicans, when they take this vote — someone said to me, ‘Can’t you stop that? — I said, ‘We want them, we want them to define themselves.’ Understand this: When they make this vote, anyone who contended that he or she was a moderate has crossed over the line,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, discussing the politics of the bill.

“I thank all of you for killing this bill the first time around — as Chuck [Schumer] has said before, it has come back from the dead. I call that a zombie, a scary zombie,” she continued. “Can you believe their leadership is making them walk the plank for a bill they have no idea of the consequences? A bill, as [Senate Minority] Leader Schumer said, [that] will not see the light of day in the United States Senate. So they walked the plank for nothing! Except their ideology.”

House Republicans “have been focused on one thing, which is delivering a win for President Trump,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

As Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy spoke, the crowd punctuated his remarks with chants of “Vote them out! Vote them out!”

“There aren’t that many life-or-death votes in this place. This is one of them,” Murphy said. “This bill is a moral and intellectual dumpster fire, and everybody knows it in this country, except for 218 people who are about to take a vote to kill thousands and thousands of Americans.”

The final bill has not yet been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but an earlier version was deemed likely to cause 24 million fewer people to be insured by 2026 than the present system.

“Trump ran for office saying he was a different kind of Republican,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the populist 2016 presidential candidate. “President Trump: You do not stand with the working class of this country when you throw 24 million people off of health insurance!”

Inside the Capitol building, the bill passed, 217-213. It was quickly followed by an unusual Rose Garden celebration and victory lap by President Trump and House Republican leaders. Yet Senate Republicans were already vowing to abandon the bill and start from scratch with their own version of Obamacare repeal. Democrats vowed to do all they could to block attempts to weaken the current law.

Organized on short notice, the rally outside the Capitol featured the president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, and of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden, as well as representatives from Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the Town Hall Project and People for the American Way.

At 3:03 p.m., the progressive website Daily Kos posted a fundraising page for challengers to 24 Republicans who voted for the bill. “Want to take immediate revenge on House Republicans who voted to destroy health care? Here’s how,” it was titled. Later in the afternoon, Hillary Clinton took to Twitter to promote the Swing Left ActBlue page, which raises money for Democratic candidates “in all 35 swing districts where reps voted for #AHCA.” ActBlue had posted a fundraising page earlier in the day for 2018 challengers, partly in response to a Facebook post by mass movement scholar Zeynep Tufekci, who had written that calls and protests would need to be augmented by innovative approaches aimed at winning the House. “My suggestion: put up a single fundraising page (the total number is important! Needs to be one page!) that targets all the vulnerable Rs that could be flipped. (There are about 40-50). Raise LARGE LARGE numbers in just a few hours,” she wrote.

By 10 p.m., the ActBlue pages had raised more than $930,000.

The rally’s speeches continued after members of Congress went inside to vote.

“When they go low, we go local,” Voto Latino founding president Maria Teresa Kumar said, modifying Michelle Obama’s 2016 campaign line in a way that drew cheers. “We’ll see them in the states!”

“They aren’t taking questions today,” said the Indivisible Project’s Leah Greenberg, promising rallies and “die-ins” and tough questions at town halls during the recess. “But they’re going to be answering for how they voted today for the rest of their careers!”

“The unemployment line is too good for these people,” said Paul Davis of Housing Works, who decried the bill’s Medicaid cuts, saying they could decimate efforts to treat and prevent HIV and predicting a “tsunami wave” in 2018. “We’re looking forward to recess. We’ll see you there!” he said.

But only a handful — six or seven — GOP congressmen plan town halls during the upcoming recess.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez spoke as the rally was winding down. For those voting yes on AHCA, “accountability will begin, and it will begin in every single ZIP code,” he promised. “We are with you on the resistance. Our values are aligned,” he said. “We have just begun to fight this fight!” As he was speaking, a woman in the crowd called out the news from inside the chamber: “They repealed it!”

Members of Congress were exiting the Capitol. Abandoning the DNC chair, the protesters rushed to the stone wall abutting the plaza, on the other side of which stood uniformed police officers. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” the protesters, a few in tears, burst out chanting. Some shook their fingers at the members of Congress as they walked down the steps to the Capitol Plaza, where two buses waited to take them to the White House for a Rose Garden victory lap.

Men in suits and women in floral dresses holding giant bouquets from the annual Congressional Club First Lady’s Luncheon, which had concluded around the same time as the health care bill vote, milled around near the members of Congress.

A handful of Democratic members, including DNC vice-chair Keith Ellison, crossed the plaza to thank the protesters and shake their hands. One, walking away, appeared to say to no one in particular, “That’s how close it was. Two people changing their name, it doesn’t pass.”

The chanting continued until the buses left, more than half an hour after the vote.

“Thank you,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., told the protesters as he approached his car in the plaza. Presumably not recognizing him as a Democrat, they kept up their chants of ‘Shame.'”

“I voted no!” he called out the window of his car as he was driven away from the scene.

A troop of students visiting Washington from Palmer Trinity School, in South Florida, appeared on the grass behind the protesters, the boys in ties and red “Make America Great Again” hats, the girls in matching plaid skirts.

The crowd of protesters had thinned out.

“Trump, Trump,” chanted the boys, giggling.

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