IOWA FALLS, Iowa — What a difference eight years makes.
More than 100 Iowans on Tuesday packed into a small farm town community center by 7:45 a.m. to urge Sen. Chuck Grassley not to repeal Obamacare, and to air their opposition to President Donald Trump’s agenda, his Cabinet nominees and his Supreme Court pick.
It was here in Iowa in the summer of 2009 that Grassley faced cantankerous crowds — the nascent Tea Party — from the other end of the political spectrum. As he was negotiating with Democrats over legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act, protesters crashed his town hall meetings to decry “government-run” health care.
Within weeks of that onslaught, Grassley pulled out of the bipartisan talks. The ensuing partisanship surrounding Obamacare has never subsided.
Now Grassley has a central role in the repeal and replace debate as a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee. And like a smattering of GOP lawmakers across the country, he’s facing heat from constituents who are packing well-publicized town halls to try to deter Republicans from repealing President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
Democratic activists have framed this week as a crucial time to make their voices heard, particularly as Republicans in Congress remain deeply divided about how to dismantle the health law and what should take its place.
Chris Petersen, a pig farmer from outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, who worries about losing the health coverage he gets under Obamacare, showed up at the Iowa Falls community center with a gift for Grassley: Extra Strength Tums.
“You’re going to need them in the next few years,” said Petersen, 62, a self-described progressive Democrat with insulin-dependent diabetes. “People are disappointed.”
“If it wasn’t for Obamacare, we wouldn’t be able to afford insurance,” he said. “Over 20 million will lose coverage and with all due respect, sir, you’re the man who talked about the death panels. You’re going to create one great big death panel in this country for people can’t afford to get insurance.”
Back in 2009, Grassley accused Democrats of crafting legislation that would allow the government to “decide when to pull the plug on grandma.” That fed into fears of what Sarah Palin and others called “death panels.” There’s no such thing in the health law, but the line inflamed fears of rationing and ignited the intense opposition to Obamacare that remains to this day.
On Tuesday, Grassley tried to reassure the crowd that packed the community hall, saying that three of the four main GOP health care plans circulating on Capitol Hill would preserve Obamacare’s most popular provisions: pre-existing condition protections, the prohibition on lifetime limits and the ability of young adults to stay on their parents’ health care plans.
“I believe at this point, with any one of those three, [those] 20 million people won’t lose because we made clear that those on the exchange, the [coverage] will continue,” the Iowa Republican said as he tried to keep the crowd under control despite angry outcries that he should retire or return to his “moderate” roots.
He later told reporters that the rowdy meetings — he encountered angry pro-ACA voters too at his second meeting of the day in Garner, Iowa — didn’t give him pause about repealing the law, particularly as he sees Republicans aligned now on keeping those key consumer protections that constituents have been vocal about such as pre-existing conditions. And he noted that he’s also heard plenty from people in Iowa about the law’s problems, such as rising premiums and narrow networks that cut them off from a physician that they want to see.
He wasn’t the only Republicans lawmaker to face angry crowds fired up about Obamacare.
Elsewhere in Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst faced hostile demonstrators both in and outside her meeting with veterans in the Maquoketa City Council Chambers. And in Lawrenceburg, Ky., a woman confronted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about coal miners, veterans and health care and said, “If you can answer any of that, I’ll sit down and shut up like Elizabeth Warren.”
At City Hall in Fairview, Tenn, a town of 8,000 about 30 miles southwest of Nashville, Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s town hall began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a plea from the mayor to everyone in the jam-packed room to “Be Nice.” Blackburn was peppered with questions about the ACA, among other things.
“There’s a lot of concern that you’re going to cobble something together,” said Murfreesboro resident Bruce Sullivan. “Will you show us that it in fact is going to be cheaper and it’s going to be affordable and it’s going to be universal … and it’s going to be better than Obamacare?”
Outside protesters held signs with slogans like: “Pretend that Russia is Planned Parenthood and investigate.” Blackburn was head of a House select committee that probed the clinics last year.
Grassley is the most senior Republican senator to hold town halls during this week’s recess, and the 7:45 a.m. start time of the day’s first meeting didn’t deter the crowd in this small farm town. Organizers said they turned nearly 100 people away once the room reached capacity.
Hardin County, in north central Iowa, is a Republican stronghold that Trump carried with 62 percent of the vote. But Democrats from other parts of Iowa woke before dawn to drive here over flat farmland covered in thick fog.
Dilys Morris got up at 5 a.m. to drive from Ames. It was her first-ever town hall meeting.
“I’m concerned about health care and all the issues,” Morris said before Grassley arrived. “We live in a red state. It’s our opportunity to let the world know there are people who are not supporting Trump in Iowa.”
Grassley was pressed on a variety of issues: whether he thinks Democrats should protest Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch just as Republicans refused to support Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. He was chastised for not doing enough to investigate Russian interference in the election. One man who lives in Iowa Falls told Grassley about his trouble getting citizenship after serving as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Afghanistan; Grassley said his staff would assist him.
Some Republicans have declined to schedule public meetings or have held “telephone” town halls instead, particularly after video circulated of a boisterous confrontation between Rep. Jason Chaffetz and a crowd in Utah.
“You can’t help but watch the Jason Chaffetz town hall and it not give you pause,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) told POLITICO before he hosted a loud town hall in Charleston on Saturday. “We live in a fairly cantankerous political time.”
Sanford said the crowds this year may be as active as the tea party phenomenon of 2009.
“If you’re a Democrat back a number of years ago, it was the tea party phenomenon. It might be as contentious as some are now on the Republican side from groups like Indivisible,” Sandford said, referring to a liberal organizing group.
Some Republicans say the protests are staged to make the opposition to Obamacare repeal appear bigger than it is.
“I don’t think they happen naturally. I think they’re programmed. I think they’re paid for and I think they’re planned,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).
Paul Demko contributed to this report from Tennessee.
Powered by WPeMatico