In the final hours before a vote on the Republican health care overhaul, powerful conservative groups raced to ensure that their Capitol Hill allies will oppose a bill they see as too weak, despite mounting pressure and threats from President Donald Trump.
Influential conservative groups treated Wednesday as a national day of action, flooding phone lines of members of Congress, running ads urging “no” votes in key congressional districts across the country and engaging in last-ditch lobbying efforts with Capitol Hill, demanding changes to a bill that, they argue, doesn’t go far enough in repealing former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Republicans who vote for the current measure “are going to own a bill that breaks their promise to fully repeal Obamacare, a promise that many of them have made for four consecutive election cycles,” warned Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, a major conservative group backed by the deep-pocketed Koch brothers. “I think it will harm their standing with conservatives and their base, and I think a lot of regular swing voters as well, because they broke their promise.”
AFP is running phone banks across the country that allow constituents to thank members of Congress who have indicated opposition to the bill—which is a polite way of pressuring them to maintain that position through the vote scheduled for Thursday.
“Right now we’re trying to say ‘thank you,’ [to] keep those members who are saying no strong,” said Donald Bryson, AFP’s North Carolina state director. “Their political careers live and die by votes from people they represent.”
Leading conservative members of Congress who don’t yet support the bill spent Wednesday meeting with administration officials in a late effort to reach a compromise on Trump’s first major legislative priority, and the dynamic was fluid. But a spokeswoman for the House Freedom Caucus, a prominent conservative coalition in Congress, said Wednesday afternoon that more than 25 members remained opposed. It would take 22 Republican defections to block the bill.
That blow to the measure comes despite growing involvement from Trump himself. While conservative activists are grousing much more loudly about House leadership than about the White House, the president, Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials have personally been engaged in efforts to bring reluctant conservatives over the finish line, complete with a Wednesday meeting at the White House.
In another meeting with House Republicans Tuesday, Trump warned of political consequences for those who don’t back the bill.
But grassroots activists say it is those who vote for a bill that doesn’t go far enough, fast enough, in dismantling Obamacare, who should be bracing for backlash back home.
“The intensity against the current bill is as high as I’ve seen it on pretty much any issue that we’ve asked our supporters for input on,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which claims several million activists throughout its national network. She said that many of them are also engaged in phone banking for more conservative amendments to the measure.
Martin added: “This is still a white-hot issue for the supporters across this country who have worked for the past seven years to repeal this bill. These people, including myself, especially the grassroots supporters, they believed it could be repealed against all odds, and I think many of them feel we’ve done our part, it’s time for Congress to do their part.”
Richard Viguerie, a longtime leader in the conservative movement, was more explicit: “We’re going to be looking at the primaries of those who are consistently voting against conservative interests and for the Republican leadership…this absolutely will be on a short list. It will be one of the more important items. There will be other votes as well, this will be one.”
Republicans generally agree that failing to successfully repeal and replace the health care law that they have spent years railing against—now that they control both the White House and Congress—would be politically devastating in the 2018 midterms. But they still don’t agree on what details of that legislation should look like.
Club for Growth is running ads in congressional districts from Florida to California, urging a no vote on the current proposal. The influential Heritage Action organization is calling for a no vote on the bill in its current form, arguing that it doesn’t go far enough in dismantling the “regulatory architecture” of the health care law. FreedomWorks, a libertarian-leaning group, has also pushed for a “key vote” against the measure, as has AFP. Key votes are often used to help powerful organizations--and donors-- assess which candidates to support, and which to oppose.
“It’s one of the most important votes over the next two years that we’ll use in evaluating how we view individual members of Congress,” Phillips said.
These conservative leaders are still open to backing the bill if more conservative changes are made before the vote Thursday. And on Wednesday morning, Pence insisted in a radio interview that he was “very confident we will have the votes.”
“Literally every hour we’re seeing members of Congress who’ve been working with the president very closely on improving this bill have come alongside as we keep this promise to the American people,” Pence said. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also voiced optimism.
And certainly, the White House and House leadership have cover from other conservative groups, as well as support from much of the rank-and-file.
The influential Faith and Freedom Coalition distributed a letter on Capitol Hill Wednesday that urged a vote in support of the bill and noted an intention to score the vote, with plans to include the measure in its voter guide going forward. The Chamber of Commerce, another major player that tends to support more business-oriented candidates, has also pushed for a key vote in favor of the bill. The House GOP leadership-aligned American Action Network nonprofit is also up with a spate of ads, including on conservative talk radio, calling on lawmakers to back the bill.
“The Republicans’ plan provides more choices and lower costs,” the spot says. “The American Health Care Act is a conservative plan to end Obamacare. President Trump is 100 percent behind these strong conservative reforms.”