The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protests fill Senate hallways as Cassidy-Graham gets its hearing

Protesters filled Senate hallways on Sept. 25, as the only public hearing for the Cassidy-Graham health-care bill got underway. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post, Photo: AARON P. BERNSTEIN/The Washington Post)

In July, 56-year-old Joe Smith trekked 22 hours from his Harrison, Ark., home to protest the Senate Republicans’ attempt to repeal part of the Affordable Care Act. Thinking the fight was over, Smith went home.

On Monday morning — after another 22-hour car and bus ride — Smith was back at the Senate, joining hundreds of protesters lined up outside the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on Cassidy-Graham.

“We can’t afford to lose our health care,” said Smith, who suffers from cerebral palsy, gets disability benefits and has insurance through Aetna. “Every time we go up here, I think it makes a difference. I personally think they shouldn’t do away with Obamacare, and I think they should fix it, so I’m here.”

Since the return of the GOP’s repeal push last week, activists from a constellation of progressive groups had planned days of action Saturday (when most people would be off work) and Monday (when the Senate returned). Just as they’d done ahead of the other repeal votes, activists focused less on massive rallies then on targeted action in the spaces where senators would be.

On Monday morning, that meant a massive, snaking line of activists outside of the Hart Senate Office Building location of the Cassidy-Graham bill’s only public hearing. The Center for Public Democracy organized some of it, but there was no one strategy once the halls were full. Some, like Smith, wanted to be seen, then head to the hearing’s overflow room. Some were there to get arrested.

Democrats, whose relationships with the protest groups have strengthened since the start of the year, encouraged them to get active ahead of the Sept. 30 repeal deadline. As they filled the halls, senators’ social media teams shared videos of them talking about their personal coverage or even getting arrested; Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, personally delivered pizzas to the people who had been lining up since early morning.

Over the course of the hearing — the first, and perhaps only, Senate hearing on a repeal bill — more activists planned civil disobedience that would end in arrest.