MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — Hundreds of people booed, shouted and laughed derisively at Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) at his first town hall meeting since he voted with other House Republicans to dismantle parts of the Affordable Care Act.
“Everybody asks for town halls so we can have civil discourse,” a frustrated Brat told more than 700 people at a suburban Richmond church on Tuesday night. “That’s what I’m trying to do. If we go this route, it’s going to be very hard to have rational civil discourse. I’m trying.”
Trouble began even before Pastor Stan Grant of Clover Hill Assembly of God finished his invocation. As he prayed to God that the discussion would go forth “in a way that will honor you,” a handful of Brat’s critics stood holding small signs aloft.
“Nope,” “Shame” and “Stop using the Bible as a weapon,” they read.
State Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfied), who attends the church and helped organize the meeting, was heckled as she tried to introduce Brat.
“Let me tell you a little bit about how I met Congressman Brat,” she began, seated on a stage with Brat at her side.
“Ugh!” someone yelled.
“You guys are a tough crowd,” she said, before turning to Brat and pressing on. “I’ve known you for about 10 years.” Then more heckling, and she gave up. “Dave,” she said, “they want to hear from you.”
Brat, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, had come to share what he billed as the good news of the health-care bill, which is now before the Senate. Republican lawmakers across the country have faced angry constituents at town halls since President Trump’s election, and the handful of legislators holding public meetings this week are meeting newly enraged crowds upset about the May 4 passage of the health-care bill.
Brat’s colleague, Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.), faced a testy crowd of his own Tuesday night about 130 miles away in Moneta.
On Monday, an Iowa congressman stormed out of a television interview after he was asked why his staff prescreened attendees at his town hall meeting, only to show up to the meeting and face jeers from that prescreened audience about his vote in favor of the health-care bill.
The legislation would allow states to opt out of many of the ACA’s key provisions, such as the current prohibition against insurance companies charging higher rates for people with preexisting conditions.
Brat told the crowd there had been “some massive misinformation on this point,” he said. He said the bill leaves those protections in place — unless a state chooses to remove them.
“I’m going to go through it very slooowly,” he said, drawing the word out. “Preexisting conditions — the states will choose whether they want to opt out. That has to go through the delegates, the senators, the governor of any state.”
The House bill would end the ACA’s subsidies for eligible people who buy health plans through marketplaces created under the law, creating and substituting new tax credits. The measure also would rescind several taxes that have helped pay for the law, including those imposed on Americans with high incomes.
The audience was overwhelmingly against Brat, but he had some supporters in the crowd. The two camps turned on each other at times. Brat was asked how he could justify Medicaid cuts to special-needs children in school. His reply was that Medicaid spending would go up with the rate of inflation, but the money be given to the states in the form of a block grant. A woman unsatisfied with that answer took to her feet.
“Children in school! Answer the question,” she yelled.
“Sit down! Sit down!” a man hollered.
“I’ll sit when he answers the question,” she shot back.
Chase scolded the crowd at times and threatened to have disruptive audience members “politely escorted out.”
“You may do this at other people’s town halls, but you’re not doing it at mine,” she said at one point. “This is my town hall now.”
The audience never behaved, but no one appeared to have been ejected.
Brat faced a similarly tough crowd in February at a town hall he held after complaining that “the women were in my grill,” demanding that he meet with the public. On Tuesday, he never quit trying to win the audience over.
A former professor who defeated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a historic 2014 primary upset, Brat made a playful reference to “Brat Bingo,” a game that incorporates many of his buzzwords (“ka-boom”) and well-worn talking points (such as the fact that he is an economist).
“All right,” he said. “I’m going to give you Bingo: Being an economist — I do like the fun. I wish this could just be fun.”
Nicole Subryan, a 44-year-old nurse from Powhatan, wore a name tag with the words: “Hello, My Name is Down Syndrome and Autism.” She said it was a reference to a “very special patient of mine” who she feared would lose Medicaid funding.
“I’m 55, self-employed and I have diabetes,” said Shelby Kinnaird, 55, of Chesterfield, who pays less than $200 a month for insurance purchased through the ACA exchange. “I’m just concerned about health care because it was miserable before the ACA.”
Sitting right behind her was Terri Kerby, 65, a retired federal employee who thinks Obamacare is “way too expensive.”
“I want to see it repealed,” she said. “We’re a long ways off from that, but they’re chipping away at it.”
As the 90-minute meeting concluded, Brat’s critics sang tauntingly at him, “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.”
“Such children, such children,” muttered Herb Teachey, 69, who is retired from a career in the biomedical industry. “We had a few very loud citizens who denied input from the rest of the group.”
But Rebekah Kusterbeck, a 41-year-old florist who wants the ACA to stay intact, summed up the meeting as “mission accomplished.”
“We were here to ruffle feathers, and we did it,” she said. “And I think we got our point across.”
At the same time, she gave Brat credit for showing up.
“It’s not easy when the bulk of the room is not your party,” she said. “He knew he was going to catch heat.”