The moment that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Republicans that there could be no vote on the party's health-care bill this week, Senate Democrats were in a familiar position — headed to a protest.
In the “Senate swamp,” a well-kept lawn across from the Capitol, hundreds of activists from Planned Parenthood, AFSCME, and smaller progressive groups were hooting and cheering their latest mini-victory. The “People’s Filibuster,” scheduled to last all week, had triumphed in its first few minutes.
“Senator [John] Cornyn was just complaining to the press,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) crowed about the Texas Republican. “He said, 'the Democrats just won’t cooperate with us.’ I’m having crocodile tears here!”
For some Democrats, it was the fifth or six protest of the Better Care Reconciliation Act in 24 hours. Some of the protesters had done even more, with the progressive group Ultraviolet tailing Republican senators as they left their offices, the most aggressive of dozens of tactics to slow down or stop BCRA. More had been cycling in and out of Capitol office rooms for news conferences, where Democrats sat back and let Medicaid beneficiaries take over the microphone.
"You are the wind under our wings,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to cheering protesters. “You are the reason we’ve come this far.”
The delay of BRCA, which Republicans had hoped to vote on this week, came after disagreements inside the majority party. But it was egged on by the “Resistance,” the loose collection of more than a thousand groups working to stop the Republican agenda that sprang out of Trump’s surprise election.
“A bill designed by wealthy white men, for wealthy white men will only further marginalize disenfranchised communities,” said the organizers of the Jan. 21 Women’s March in a statement. "While a delay on the vote is a small victory, it’s time to crank up the outrage and tell all Senators to vote NO.”
Before Tuesday, some progressive activists were already reading takes about how they’d lost the health-care wars. A story in Monday's Politico reported that "liberal activists and Democratic senators have struggled to capture the public’s focus”; a story in Vox, published the same day, noted how long it had been "since we saw the kind of overwhelming nationwide outcry that accompanied either the first attempt to pass the health care bill, or that erupted during the women’s march.”
The point of comparison was the tea party movement, which played a role in slowing down the passage of the Affordable Care Act and then cutting away the Democrats’ congressional majorities. Like the tea party, the “resistance” had been quickly embraced by a dazed out-of-power party.
Unlike the tea party, which exploited the gap between President Barack Obama’s unifying rhetoric and the progressive agenda, the “resistance” was trying to stop a majority party ready to bust through guardrails — the filibuster, the norms of the budget process — to pass its agenda.
Importantly, by Tuesday, the new activist movement had already absorbed some defeats. At rallies, MoveOn’s Washington director Ben Wikler said multiple times that the resistance needed to remember the American Health Care Act’s journey through the House — from momentum to death, then resurrection.
“It was educational,” said Ezra Levin, the co-founder of the Indivisible network of local protest groups. “Paul Ryan gave up in March and called the ACA ‘the law of the land.’ And then he dusted himself off and got the votes. So we’re taking today as a huge victory, but not a final victory. We recognize that Mitch McConnell will try to twist arms and get this through. Grass-roots pressure works, but this is going to require even more of it.”
Activists and politicians both messaged on what was in the bill, not on the simple need to beat Republicans. The Tuesday events attended by Democrats centered constituents, not politicians; a photo op on the steps outside the Senate had every Democrat holding up a sign with the face of one of their state’s residents, and a story about what the BCRA would cost them.
“It’s a scary thing — 60 percent of the American people don’t know what’s in that legislation,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the “People’s Filibuster” rally. “Your job, my job, is to make sure 100 percent of people know what’s in that legislation — and tell Republicans what they think about it.”
Doing so, according to activists, would mean repeating what had seemed to be working. CREDO Action and Daily Action, two unrelated groups, had together helped organize around 135,000 calls to Senate offices. The Working Families Party had organized visits (and sit-ins) at offices; ADAPT, a disability advocates’ group, had made police remove people from their wheelchairs.
The message from Democrats: Keep it up.
“We’ve got to fight even harder over the Fourth of July and every day until we bury this atrocious bill,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democrats’ 2018 Senate campaign efforts. "All of you: When your senators go back to their states, when they go to barbecues and parades, will you be there to tell them to kill this awful bill?"