As Republicans return to their home districts to sell a flailing health-care bill, liberal groups are using the congressional recess to build opposition. They believe tens of thousands of phone calls, emails and in-person pushes will force on-the-fence senators to reject the legislation for good.
The fresh activism is coming with encouragement from Democratic lawmakers who are mired in the minority and have been mostly left to watch as Republicans struggle to reshape the nation’s laws to their liking. After starting the year on the defensive with their own base, party leaders and House and Senate Democrats are finally taking cues from these groups, believing that tactics honed far outside Washington could help scare Republicans into abandoning long-standing promises to upend the Affordable Care Act.
Ahead of the recess, while Republican senators toiled over details of their health-care overhaul behind closed doors, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) did what’s become natural for Democrats lately: He lashed out on Twitter.
“CBO confirms this thing is a %#$@ sandwich,” he tweeted shortly after the release of the Congressional Budget Office’s report that estimated 22 million more Americans would be uninsured under the Senate GOP’s plan. He tweeted later that the left’s fight against the legislation “is a test of the morality of our country. We have to win this one.”
“Democrats can see with their eyes where the energy is in American politics right now,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org, a liberal group initially launched to oppose the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
“It’s to abandon politics as usual and put up a bare-fisted fight. That’s really sinking in.”
Schatz won reelection last year with more than 70 percent of the vote and acknowledges he did so by airing “really pretty ads” and taking advice from expensive consultants. It might have worked for him in Hawaii, but President Trump won the White House and Democrats failed to win back control of the House or Senate.
So now he admits to being a recent convert to the tactics used by Wikler’s group and other organizations such as CREDO Mobile; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and the fast-growing Indivisible movement. The groups have organized protests or sit-ins at congressional district offices and urged followers to flood Capitol Hill phone lines in opposition to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment or Trump’s travel ban. Neither pressure campaign stopped DeVos or the Trump ban, but Schatz said they signaled to Democratic lawmakers that the groups could quickly mobilize Americans against Trump.
“Our playbook needs a refresh. It’s predictable and it’s stale,” Schatz said. “That refresh is not just new language or a new standard-bearer, but a recognition that for Democrats to win, we need to fight for Democrats — and then they’ll fight for us.”
For Schatz, that has meant firing off quick stream-of-consciousness tweets that have earned him headlines and 30,000 more followers so far this year. It’s also meant marching in the streets for the first time in his life, as he did last week with activists who opposed the GOP health-care plan. And it means providing counsel to constituents or activists who still want a little guidance from an elected official.
The senator who once chastised Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Twitter for calling Hawaii “an island in the Pacific” said his change in tone “is a recognition that people don’t want to be sold soap.
“They don’t want a prepackaged product; they want to know that we’re people and that we respond to outrages in the same way that they do.”
Democrats’ willingness to fight, particularly on health care, has not gone unnoticed by progressive activists who say they deserve credit for drawing in even wary moderates.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) — who are all up for reelection in states Trump won handily — have all been eager to speak out. They joined a protest-turned-photo-op on the Senate steps with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and other Democrats, with each senator holding a portrait of a constituent who had benefited from Medicaid.
“The way they’ve coalesced around the health-care issue has been better than expected; they’ve done so because of how many people were demanding it,” said Winnie Wong, the co-founder of People for Bernie Sanders and an Occupy Wall Street veteran.
Schatz was one of only a handful of Democratic lawmakers to actually march in last week’s health-care rally — other party leaders just showed up to give speeches. He waited restlessly as Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Schumer addressed the crowd.
“They have lots of powerful wealthy people on their side,” Schumer said of Republicans. “Who do we have? You!”
Schumer especially has seen his fortunes change with the far left. In February, thousands of protesters marched to Schumer’s Brooklyn home to demand resistance to Trump’s Cabinet nominees; some chanted “What the f---, Chuck.”
The infighting has largely stopped since then. Schumer has been a regular presence at protests, thanking activists for having Senate Democrats’ back. They’ve returned the praise. Schumer “is both speaking out at every opportunity and keeping the caucus aggressive,” said Wikler, whose group helped organize the Capitol protest.
After Schumer spoke, Schatz stepped on stage and called the GOP health-care bill “literally an $800 billion cut in Medicaid and literally an $800 billion wealth transfer to people who don’t need it.”
He offered some advice for the congressional recess: “Don’t wait for instructions from any organization. Whatever you think you can do in that moment, just do it.”
“Six months ago, everyone in that building thought that repeal of the Affordable Care Act was a done deal,” Wikler said, pointing to the Capitol. Since then, he said, Democrats had learned to take some cues from the “resistance.”
“We’ve mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to participate in our democracy, and that’s taught us something crucial about the resistance to Trump: it’s working,” said Faiz Shakir, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
In many ways, Schatz is an ideological counterweight to conservative foot soldiers such as Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), James Lankford (R-Okla.) or Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), other senators in their 40s with no obvious White House dreams who could find themselves in the Senate for decades to come. While many of his Democratic colleagues ponder a run for president, Schatz said he intends to stay in the Senate.
“Somebody has to not run for president,” Schatz quipped.
Schatz came to the Senate in late 2012 as the appointed successor of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who died after 49 years in the Senate just as Congress was in the throes of the “fiscal cliff” fight. The day after Christmas, Schatz flew to Washington aboard Air Force One with President Obama, who cut his annual Hawaiian vacation short to avert a financial disaster.
As Schatz prepared to travel from Washington to Honolulu on Thursday, a trip he makes nearly every weekend to see his wife and two young children, he admitted that despite doling out advice on how progressives should pressure Republicans during the upcoming recess, he hadn’t determined what he will do. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have urged Democrats to hold news conferences, host rallies with progressive groups and submit op-eds to newspapers. Schatz said that’s not good enough.
“You can’t fill a calendar and think that’s a plan,” he explained, meaning that he will avoid a strategy that dictates, “I’m going to use Facebook on Tuesday and use Twitter on Wednesday, and then I’m going to send an op-ed in and hold a news conference on Friday.
“It’s a pretty chaotic environment out there,” he said. “We need to be a little more flexible.”