Republican Rep. Leonard Lance faced a raucous, record town-hall crowd in his New Jersey district this week, where he was constantly told that he needed to “do your job.”
He said forcing President Donald Trump to turn over tax returns would be an “overreach from Congress” and that he didn’t like Congress going after the “returns of a private individual.” A constituent then yelled back: “He’s the president! He’s a public individual!”
He faced four questions on Russian interference in the election. Others came on Obamacare. On immigration. On press freedom.
Across the country this week, Republican lawmakers have faced down angry crowds of constituents questioning their policy proposals and support for Trump’s administration. Congress was on a break for the week for a district work week, during which lawmakers leave Washington and meet with people in their home states.
But for Republicans, the week off meant they were faced with angry crowds in town-hall meetings in states from Kentucky to Virginia to Arkansas.
Republicans have denounced and Democrats have cheered the protests. To many, they resemble shades of the early days of the Tea Party movement after President Barack Obama’s election.
Much of the concern and anger at the town halls has been directed at the imminent repeal of the Affordable Care Act. House Speaker Paul Ryan said last week that a bill to repeal and replace the law would come after the week-long break, and a version of the repeal bill leaked on Friday.
Some constituents were angry about the potential repeal of the law. At a Wednesday night town hall, an angry constituent confronted Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, saying her husband was dying and had Alzheimer’s. She said coverage through the ACA was cheap for her and her family and was worried
“And you want to stand there with him at home, expect us to be calm, cool, and collected?” she asked Cotton. “Well, what kind of insurance do you have?”
At another town hall, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa was told by a local farmer that he needed Obamacare. He referenced Grassley’s infamous, and since disproven, idea that Obamacare would create “death panels.”
“I’m on Obamacare. If it wasn’t for Obamacare, we wouldn’t be able to afford insurance,” said Chris Peterson, Grassley’s constituent. “With all due respect, sir, you’re the man that talked about the death panel. We’re going to create one big death panel in this country if people can’t afford insurance.”
Constituents at a town hall for Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, meanwhile, held up signs at town halls reading “Save the ACA.”
Shades of 2009 and Republican pushback
To many observers, these protests have recent precedent: the rise of the conservative Tea Party after Obama’s election in 2008.
“A lot of the tactics and a lot of the energy that we’re seeing today focused at the Republican Congress in these town hall meetings is more than just reminiscent — it’s downright deja vu,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told NPR.
Other Democrats, however, have been pushing back against the comparison, saying that the two instances are different.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential candidate, said the protests were different because “unlike the Tea Party, this is not being funded by the billionaire class.”
While GOP lawmakers have been getting an earful, they have also sought to fight back against the protests.
Trump, for his part, tweeted a response to the protests on Tuesday night, calling them “Sad!”
“The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists,” Trump wrote.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer also denounced the protests during a press briefing this week, saying the protesters were just trying to get “media attention.”
I think there’s a hybrid there,” Spicer said in a briefing on Wednesday. “I think some people are clearly upset. But there is a bit of professional protester, manufactured base in there.”
Grassley, for his part, was a bit more muted in his criticism, saying the protestors weren’t fake and that the protests should be expected given the outcome of the election.
“I want to make clear it’s all legitimate,” Grassley said. “If Hillary Clinton had been elected president, there’d be people from the conservative end of the spectrum to probably be doing the same thing.”
Yet, whether or not these protests will lead to any policy differences is so far unclear.
Harvard professor and polling expert Robert Blendon, in an interview with Vox’s Sarah Kliff, said that while overall approval of Obamacare has been improving to record levels recently, it remains deeply unpopular among Republicans.
“For people in the House or Senate, they know a general poll doesn’t reflect who voted for them,” Blendon said. “So what’s important to me, if I’m in the House, is whether Republicans are changing their minds. That is really the key.”
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