Both sides scramble for edge in health care fight

The Senate GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort may have stumbled, but activists on the right and left hustled into action on Wednesday to try to shape the rewrite on one side — or kill the bill outright, on the other.

Liberals capped their third straight day of massive demonstrations against repeal by drawing a thousand-plus demonstrators to the Capitol, while gearing up to pressure moderate GOP lawmakers in their home states during next week’s recess.

Conservatives, perhaps even more elated than progressives by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s postponed health care vote, are focusing on prodding Republicans to push their bill further to the right.

The furious mobilization on both sides of the Obamacare battle suggests that Senate Republicans may not be able to pull off a repeat of the last-minute vote on a once-stalled repeal bill that the House GOP managed last month. The left in particular, after struggling to push health care back onto front pages, has no intentions of letting up in the wake of McConnell’s decision to push a vote to next month.

Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of UltraViolet, a women’s advocacy group, said her fellow progressive activists are on the same page and “treating this like it’s Armageddon, which it is.”

“Until this bill is put away, we can’t stop organizing,” Chaudhary said in an interview, warning that often “deals get cut in back rooms” to corral undecided votes.

While the left ramps up the pressure on GOP senators who have spurned their leadership’s bill, the right is holding off on direct fire — at least for now.

Conservatives hope that GOP leaders will drift further toward the positions of two of their close allies, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who have been heavily involved in crafting the Senate bill over the last five months.

Along with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Cruz and Lee are pressing McConnell to make tweaks aimed at further rolling back Obamacare’s tax credits and core insurance regulations. Activists on the right are bolstering the three senators’ message, warning that anything less than full Obamacare repeal amounts to a broken promise by Senate Republicans.

“We’re disappointed lawmakers haven’t done more to improve health care, but we remain committed to working with them,” said Freedom Partners Vice President of Policy Nathan Nascimento. “We worked with the House to improve the AHCA, and we’ll continue to work with the Senate to improve its legislation.”

As Senate Republicans try to salvage their bill in time for a quick post-recess vote, three leading conservative activist groups have diverged somewhat on their message. FreedomWorks and Club for Growth slammed the bill, while Heritage Action took a markedly softer tone, calling the bill a “chance to stop the bleeding” even if it falls short of full repeal.

Right-leaning groups —some of whom are coordinating closely with conservatives like Paul and Lee — are working behind the scenes to align their messaging, both to lawmakers and the public, one conservative advocacy group source said. They’re looking to amplify a “repeal or bust” attitude during next week’s recess, reminding Republicans that many of them already voted to repeal the seven-year-old Affordable Care Act without any replacement during the Obama era.

“Mitch McConnell said ‘root and branch’,” said Jason Pye, FreedomWorks’ public policy and legislative affairs director, panning the bill. “This is just not a repeal of Obamacare. I wish people would stop saying that.”

As conservatives work to get on the same page, liberals who have occasionally veered off into calls for single-payer health care during this year’s repeal battles are relishing their moment of messaging unity.

Before the thousand-plus marchers gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday for what was originally billed as a human chain but became a march around the building, Capitol Police reported arresting 40 protesters in multiple GOP Senate offices.

Progressives also rolled out new campaigns aimed at spotlighting the GOP repeal bill’s Medicaid cuts and coverage losses in the home states of moderate Republican senators. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched a new TV ad focusing on Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), branding her as “squishy” for criticizing only the current version of the legislation.

CREDO Action, a liberal group that previously pressured moderate Democrats to distance themselves from GOP-led health care talks, is now targeting GOP swing votes. Political director Murshed Zaheed said the group is focusing on a call-in campaign targeting Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Capito.

"I don’t think complacency is going to be an issue," Zaheed said in an interview, because "people remember exactly what happened" in the House earlier this year when Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) yanked his repeal bill only to resuscitate it and win. "We are going to be ready for the Trojan horse and have our guard up."

At Wednesday afternoon’s march, where demonstrators shouted jubilantly that “health care is a human right," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) topped the speakers’ list. Also in the mix were liberal senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Brian Schatz of Hawaii. (Schatz tweeted from the crowd, writing: “My first march ever.”)

"Over the last week, Democrats have been stepping up to the plate, joining activists in their districts, in D.C., across the country, and pulling out all the stops," MoveOn.org Washington director Ben Wikler said in an interview. "You can see that it’s had the necessary effect."

On the right, groups are wary of upsetting McConnell, who lit into the pro-Trump group America First Policies for its planned $1 million campaign against vulnerable Nevada Sen. Dean Heller after he came out against the bill. America First Policies later abandoned plans to hit Heller over his opposition.

But that patience may last only for so long if Republican leaders appear to be making overtures to the conference’s more moderate wing. Among the GOP’s most ardent boosters, the repeal effort has already strayed far off course.

“These guys have conceded a ton,” Pye said of the party’s conservative wing. “They conceded a ton to get to yes in the House. I think the Senate’s going the same way.”

Diamond Naga Siu contributed to this report.

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