House Republicans, on guard after passing an unpopular healthcare bill that would replace parts of ObamaCare, are seeing their town hall meetings go viral.
In Lewiston, Idaho, conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador told a rowdy crowd that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to healthcare,” setting off a frenzy in the room and on social media. Fact-checker Politifact promptly ruled that Labrador’s statement was a “pants on fire” lie.
Vulnerable two-term Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) went viral even before setting foot in his town hall. At a Dubuque youth center, he ripped off his microphone and stormed out of a local TV interview after a reporter asked why he was pre-screening nonconstituents for his town hall if he’s willing to take donations from those people.
“I'm done here. This is ridiculous. This is ridiculous,” Blum said as he stood up and walked out of the room as a half-dozen children from the center looked on. “He’s going to sit here and just badger me.”
Hours later, Blum appeared at his pre-screened town hall at a packed high school gym and still was treated to loud boos, jeers and yelling — much of it aimed at his vote last week in support of House Republicans' healthcare bill.
Blum’s actions made for great video, though not the kind he was presumably hoping for. Other lawmakers offered criticism for the self-imposed wounds.
“They lack discipline,” one House GOP lawmaker said of his colleagues.
The viral moments starring Labrador and Blum — two members of the far-right Freedom Caucus — are being seized upon and circulated by Democratic operatives convinced that the GOP’s healthcare vote will backfire and hand Democrats the House majority in the 2018 midterms.
These moments also are precisely the reason more cautious Republicans are laying low and skipping public events and interviews altogether during the weeklong congressional recess.
Only about a dozen of the House’s 238 Republicans are hosting public events during the break, according to the left-leaning Town Hall Project, which tracks and publishes public congressional events online.
Some GOP lawmakers, like House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-N.J.) and Rep. Jaime Herrera BeutlerJaime Lynn Herrera BeutlerThe 9 Republicans who voted to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress House votes to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble MORE (R-Wash.), are holding telephone town halls instead of in-person forums. Such a route allows lawmakers to hear from constituents in a more controlled setting that doesn’t risk video ricocheting around social media.
Many of those who are holding in-person town halls are taking precautions.
Constituents attending Blum’s town hall were pre-screened and prevented from carrying handheld signs. Local Democrats circumvented the restriction by handing out green and red sheets of paper people could hold up if they agreed or disagreed with Blum, according to The Washington Post.
Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) plans similar restrictions for a town hall on Wednesday night in a predominantly Democratic part of his swing district.
An RSVP page advises attendees not to bring signs or bags. It also notes that “due to safety requirements, law enforcement officers will be in attendance and all personal items are subject to search.”
MacArthur’s role in crafting an amendment that led to the healthcare bill’s passage is expected to draw protests at his town hall. Demonstrators organized by New Jersey Citizen Action plan to hold a rally outside, according to the Burlington County Times.
At an event Tuesday, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), a top 2018 Democratic target, was grilled by constituents angry that he voted for the healthcare bill after previously expressing opposition to an earlier version.
Denham co-sponsored an amendment unveiled the night before last Thursday’s vote that would provide $8 billion over five years to help individuals with pre-existing conditions afford premiums in states that received waivers from ObamaCare protections preventing sick people from being charged more.
One constituent at the “coffee and casual conversation” event complained that he called Denham’s office the day before the vote and was told by a staffer the lawmaker planned to oppose the bill. Then he saw the next day that Denham had indeed voted for it.
“The whole experience made me feel about this big,” the constituent said, holding his thumb and index finger close together.
Another constituent demanded to know why Denham changed his position after indicating he’d vote against the bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. “Why did you lie to us?” he asked.
Denham calmly explained that he felt the changes were enough to earn his support.
Labrador, who announced Tuesday he’s running for governor in Idaho next year, declined to comment for this story. But the Tea Party favorite felt enough pressure that he issued a statement on his Facebook page where he conceded that his “nobody dies” remark “wasn’t very elegant.”
He also pointed out how accessible he’s been to his constituents, holding four town halls in Idaho. And he knocked the media for taking him out of context and only focusing on a “five-second clip.”
“In a lengthy exchange with a constituent, I explained to her that Obamacare has failed the vast majority of Americans. In the five-second clip that the media is focusing on, I was trying to explain that all hospitals are required by law to treat patients in need of emergency care regardless of their ability to pay and that the Republican plan does not change that,” Labrador said in his statement.
“The reason I held four towns halls in Idaho was to have an honest and frank discussion with my constituents about important issues,” he added. “It certainly doesn’t help that the media is only highlighting a five-second video, instead of the entire exchange.”