Since the House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA) in May, a group of Republican senators have been quietly at work on a Senate version of the tax-slashing, Medicaid-cutting bill. This process is taking place outside the normal structure of the committee system. Republicans won't even share the text until it's scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)—a clear bid to bypass public debate for what promises to be a very controversial and probably unpopular bill. "We aren't stupid," a Republican aide told Axios.
That secrecy matters, because the AHCA would transform the health insurance system in all sorts of ways—mostly ways that would make it harder for the poor, the sick, and the old to get coverage. According to Politico, the GOP is also considering using the bill to block all federal funding from going to Planned Parenthood, which would endanger the lives of thousands of low-income women who rely on the organization for cancer screenings.
Democratic activists have been attempting to get people to protest the bill through phone calls to Congress, but that's complicated by how little is known about the Senate version of the AHCA. To find out how that effort was going, I spoke to Angel Padilla, the policy director at Indivisible, a grassroots nonprofit that is organizing phone call campaigns targeting Republican senators from ten key states: Alaska, West Virginia, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maine. Here's what we talked about:
VICE: Let's start with some basic advice for people trying to affect this process by calling the Senate? How much does it matter if the person who is making the phone call is a constituent? Do out-of-state calls help sway senators?
Angel Padilla: No. It's wasted energy if you're calling a senator that isn't your own senator. The first thing they're gonna ask you is where you live, what's your address, what's your zip code. If you are not in their state, they will immediately dismiss it. It actually might even harm us if we're having a bunch of calls from out-of-state people because Republicans can make the case that it's not their constituents who care.
In my time on the Hill, I worked for a member who was from Chicago, and whenever a Chicago zip code would appear on my phone, I knew it was an actual constituent and that I better pay attention. If it was a zip code that was not from Chicago, I was more reluctant because I thought it might be someone calling from a different district.
Some more moderate Republicans senators may not like the particulars of this bill, but there's also a lot of pressure to not be the one vote that stops the AHCA from going through. How much can the calls counterbalance that political pressure?
If you're a member of Congress, the one thing you don't want to be is the deciding vote on anything. You don't want to be that vote because it puts a big spotlight on you, and you're going to upset either your constituents or the administration, in this case. We say there are three senators who really matter right now—it's going to come down to [Maine Republican Susan] Collins, [Alaska Republican Lisa] Murkowski, and [West Virginia Republican Shelley] Capito.
None of them want to be that last deciding vote. That's why it really does matter to have constituent pressure. If they are hearing every single day that their constituents want them to vote no, they can go back to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and say, "I just can't do it because my constituents don't want it." The clearer that message is, the easier it is from them to say that.
Would the effort to fight the AHCA be less intense if the GOP wasn't trying to push the bill through so quickly, if they slowed down and allowed debate like Democrats did in 2009 with the ACA?
At the end of the day, this is a visceral thing to a lot of people. Whether or not this is rushed, what Republicans are trying to do is take away healthcare from 23 million people. For someone who might be affected by that, that's going to get them to town halls and make phone calls. This secrecy, and trying to jam it through without a [CBO] score, public hearings, input from stakeholders, and experts weighing in, that doesn't sit well with anyone. When you're talking about [what this means for] the American economy and millions of people, it doesn't make sense not to have public hearings on it. They don't want to let the public know what's actually in it because they know that no one wants it.
They're submitting pieces [of the bill] for a CBO score, but that's not what they're going to be voting on. At the very last minute, Mitch McConnell is going to slip in a substitute bill, and that's what they're going to vote on, and it's going to be something that hasn't been scored and that no one's read. They're going to try to say they got a CBO score, and it's BS.
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Is your short-term goal to delay this vote until after the July 4 recess?
There are two goals here: one for Republican senators and another for Democratic senators. For Republicans, they need to hear from their constituents how unpopular this bill is, how no one wants it. They need to get pressured to commit to not voting for any bill that would take people off their healthcare or raise premiums or eliminate the guarantee for people with preexisting conditions.
For Democrats, they can't stop this with their numbers. What they can do is slow down the process. There is one tool they have that they're not using.
You mean withholding consent, a method of slowing down business in the Senate to a crawl?
Yes. The ask we're making of Democratic senators is to withhold consent from everything in the Senate until we have public hearings, because the American public deserves that. It's the one thing Democrats can do right now.
Why aren't Democrats withholding consent?
Some Democratic senators don't think there's a difference with delaying the bill for a week. They think [the Republicans] are going to get it through, so what's a week? If Republicans want to get this through for the last week of June, and we can delay it until after the July 4 recess so the Republicans can go back to their states and have thousands of people screaming at them for this dumb thing they're trying to do, that helps us. That's why Democrats need to be delaying as much as possible.
The only reason they're not doing it is because the bills on the floor this week are things that make them a little uncomfortable about slowing down—sanctions on Russia and sanctions on Iran. I get the concern, but they should be worried about their constituents who will lose coverage. We will get to those bills. We can't risk people's healthcare.
There's a lot of energy over this issue right now, but we're only a few months into the Trump administration. How can we keep people energized for the next three and a half years when it comes to fighting back?
This is the questions we've all been asking ourselves, and I think there are two things: first, recognizing victories when we get victories. Donald Trump was supposed to have a [ACA] repeal bill on his desk day one, and he didn't. He still doesn't have one, and that's because of all this energy at the grassroots level, and that is a victory. Getting a special counsel appointed at the Department of Justice is a big deal—we have to understand what the victories are.
It's also making people realize how Trump and the Republicans are attacking them from so many different directions—because it's not just healthcare. If people understand how this will affect their lives and their families, they will stay motivated.
What happens if or when the bill passes? What's the next step?
Step one is accountability. After the House passed its bill, we immediately created this website called Payback Project where we highlight the 217 members [of the House] who voted for the AHCA to make sure people don't forget that this is what they did. We don't want constituents to forget the fact that their representatives chose Donald Trump over their health and well-being.
For the senators who vote for this bill, their constituents need to be constantly reminded of what they did. These senators voted again to give Donald Trump a victory over their health and safety, and that's something people need to remember into next year.
It's not over. We do think the Senate is the last line of defense, we need to stop it in the Senate. Who knows? The House will still have to pass the Senate version if it gets changed drastically. Hopefully, we won't ever get to that point.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.