Jimmy Kimmel becomes thorn in the GOP's side

Republicans racing against the clock to repeal ObamaCare are fighting against Democrats, angry patient advocates and a who’s-who of health industry groups.

Yet one of the most formidable opponents they face is an unlikely wild card: the comedian Jimmy Kimmel.

Kimmel, the late-night host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” program, has emerged as the public face of the resistance to the GOP’s effort to pass an ObamaCare repeal bill. 

The late-night host is accusing the Republicans — particularly Sen. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyOn The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Trump floats tariffs on European cars | Nikki Haley slams UN report on US poverty | Will tax law help GOP? It's a mystery Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — House passes opioid bill | Planned Parenthood sues over teen pregnancy program | Azar to face Senate next week On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Supreme Court allows states to collect sales taxes from online retailers | Judge finds consumer bureau structure unconstitutional | Banks clear Fed stress tests MORE (R-La.), a physician who helped craft the bill — of threatening to steal health care from millions of Americans. And he’s using his own family’s health-care nightmare to drive the charges home, arguing that his infant son, Billy, born with a congenital heart defect requiring extensive care, would be among those to lose coverage under the Republicans’ bill.

Cassidy in May vowed not to support any repeal proposal that failed to protect patients with pre-existing conditions from a loss of coverage or skyrocketing out-of-pocket costs — a standard he coined “the Jimmy Kimmel test.”

Kimmel hasn’t forgotten the promise. He’s lashed out at Cassidy for authoring a bill the comedian says flouts the senator’s own standard.

“On health care, Cassidy flunks his own ‘Jimmy Kimmel test,’ ” Kimmel tweeted on Monday. He’s since followed up with late-night monologues emphasizing the point.

For the Democrats, Kimmel is something of a godsend: a popular TV personality willing to use his public platform to protect former President Obama’s signature law. And they’re milking his celebrity for all its worth, issuing a slew of statements invoking him.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Thursday launched a digital ad campaign targeting 12 Republican senators for supporting an effort that they say fails the “Kimmel test.” 

“Anytime you have a popular public figure able to tell a genuine emotional story it's powerful,” said a former Democratic leadership aide. “In this case, Kimmel has a enormous platform to speak from and a message that is hard to dismiss as partisan. He's not speaking as a liberal or a conservative. He's speaking as a father who has had to personally deal with something that everyone can relate to.”

It is hardly unusual for entertainment superstars to dive into partisan politics. Jane Fonda tapped her celebrity to become among the most outspoken — and controversial — opponents of the Vietnam War. MoveOn.org routinely taps Hollywood stars to promote its liberal fundraising efforts. And the Emmy Awards show, aired this week, was chock-full of Trump references and a large bulk of the prizes went to politically charged shows like “Veep,” “Saturday Night Live” and John Oliver’s weekly program on HBO. 

But for a well-known figure like Kimmel to plunge so deeply into a battle over a particular piece of legislation — and to do so on a personal level — is more rare. Perhaps not since Jon Stewart, the former host of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” hounded Congress to extend health-care benefits to 9/11 emergency responders has a celebrity participated so aggressively in a partisan policy fight on Capitol Hill. 

Conservatives — racing to pass a repeal bill before month’s end, when fast-track procedural rules expire — have taken note, accusing Kimmel of butting in to a policy debate he knows nothing about.

“I always turn to millionaire comedians for my health care public policy,” Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist, quipped on CNN on Thursday. 

“I wish Jimmy Kimmel would focus on being funny instead of giving health care advice,” Lewis said.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate panel advances three spending bills Trump says he will sign executive order to end family separations Trump backs narrow bill halting family separations: official MORE (R-S.C.), who authored the repeal bill with Cassidy, has also accused Kimmel of being uninformed, saying the comedian simply adopted “some liberal talking points that are absolutely garbage.” 

“He bought it hook, line and sinker,” Graham told NBC News on Wednesday.

"I’m sorry he does not understand," Cassidy echoed Wednesday on CNN's "New Day" program.

The comedian was quick to respond to such attacks, using his monologue on Wednesday night’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” show to mock his critics. 

“Which part don't I understand? The part where you cut $243 billion dollars from federal health-care assistance? Am I not understanding the part where states would let insurance companies price you out of coverage for having pre-existing conditions?" he said. 

“Could it be, Sen. Cassidy, that the problem is that I do understand and you got caught with your G-O-Penis out. Is that possible?”  

The ferocity of the debate has energized liberals, who feel the Republicans are being schooled in the debate.

“Conservatives are embarrassed that a late-night comic did more due diligence on Graham-Cassidy than Graham, Cassidy, or its supporters,” Jon Favreau, former speechwriter for Obama, tweeted Thursday.

At the heart of the debate are the patient protections under ObamaCare that prohibit private health insurers from refusing coverage — or demanding higher costs — from those with pre-existing conditions. The Cassidy-Graham bill allows states to apply for waivers eliminating some of ObamaCare’s insurance requirements. 

The Cassidy-Graham bill prohibits an outright refusal of coverage, but allows states to apply for waivers empowering insurers to increase costs based on a patient’s health.

The sponsoring senators, along with other proponents of the proposal, dispute the charge that millions would be priced out of coverage. They’re pointing to requirements in the bill that states, before receiving such waivers, must demonstrate that affordable coverage would be maintained for previously sick patients.

“More people will have coverage, and we protect those with pre-existing conditions,” Cassidy told CNN.

Many insurance companies dispute that claim. On Wednesday, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association warned the Cassidy-Graham bill “would allow states to waive key consumer protections, as well as undermine safeguards for those with pre-existing medical conditions.” America’s Health Insurance Plans, the health insurance industry’s largest lobbying group, also came out this week against the bill, saying it “pull[s] back on protections for pre-existing conditions.”

The ultimate influence of Kimmel’s activism remains to be seen. Senate Republicans are vowing to vote on the repeal bill next week, and Trump is optimistic he has the votes needed for passage.

But in the meantime, liberals groups say Kimmel’s advocacy is providing crucial fuel to the opposition.

”Jimmy Kimmel’s passionate opposition to Republican attempts to cut Medicaid and take away people's health care is spreading like wildfire — and helping grass-roots groups like the [Progressive Change Campaign Committee] put in calls to Congress from all across the nation,” said Kaitlin Sweeney, spokeswoman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.