GOP activists put Congress on notice: Repeal Obamacare or get voted out

Frustration is mounting among Republican activists over the GOP’s continued failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, with grassroots groups now warning of consequences for lawmakers in the 2018 elections if the Senate doesn’t reach a deal soon.

“Activists, real grassroots people, are absolutely disappointed, and to some point I’d say devastated, over what we feel like is a broken promise,” said Donald Bryson, the state director of the North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an influential conservative group backed by the Koch brothers.

“A lot of these people are just really like, ‘Why wasn’t there a plan? Why don’t you all have a sense of urgency?’” he said, even as he noted that conservatives could still support the ultimate repeal bill.

In a surprise move last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed a vote on the measure until after the July 4 recess in an effort to lock down more support for the bill. Lawmakers are now scrambling, again, to hammer out an agreement to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act that won’t cause either the moderates or the conservatives to jump ship on a proposal that was at the very heart of the Republican message for years.

After all, McConnell can only afford two “no” votes, and going into the recess this week, there remained considerable opposition to the bill drafted in secret.

Conservative activists around the country are not in agreement over the details of the legislation. But they are vociferously making the case that Republican lawmakers need to figure out a way to repeal Obamacare — fast.

“If the Republican Party cannot show they can deliver on a basic campaign promise like Obamacare, I’m very concerned about the ability to keep the House and Senate next year,” said Noah Wall, the national director of campaigns at the conservative group FreedomWorks. “Why would they go out and support candidates who have effectively betrayed their fundamental campaign promises? What’s the motivation? I think there will be some consequences in the primaries. Ultimately, the biggest consequence is in the general.”

Part of the challenge for lawmakers grappling with the bill, however, is the division within the party over how far it should go in repealing Obamacare and what a replacement would look like — not to mention the multiple viewpoints on the issue expressed by President Donald Trump.

Last week alone, Trump both suggested that it would ultimately be “okay” if the bill wasn’t successful, and just days later, took to Twitter to urge, “if Republican Senators are unable to pass what they are working on now, they should immediately REPEAL, and then REPLACE at a later date!”

“I mean, what is it?” exploded JoAnn Fleming, a major Texas tea party leader, recounting the president’s varying remarks. “That fuels uncertainty, it just does. I would like to see the president and the current administration be successful, but when they keep giving these mixed signals, I really don’t know how we can go about having an orderly process to get this done.”

Some conservative groups, including FreedomWorks, have embraced Trump’s latter proposal — repeal now, replace later — but McConnell indicated Friday that that is not the plan.

Meanwhile, progressive activists have been mobilizing intensively and in more unified opposition to the measure, flooding their members’ inboxes and phone lines with messages to reject the bill and plotting protests over the recess. But it’s not just the left that is organizing — there’s a flurry of activity on the right, too, a sign of the grassroots backlash to come if a deal is not reached, and a deal deemed sufficiently conservative at that.

FreedomWorks has upcoming events slated for places including Myrtle Beach, S.C., Sacramento, Calif., Orange County, Calif. and Phoenix, designed in part to keep pressure on lawmakers to fully repeal Obamacare and to thank those who are already on board, Wall said. The North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity is looking at health care and tax reform-related town halls for the August recess, according to Bryson. And Tea Party Patriots, another major grassroots group, has been encouraging activists to speak with their congressional members at parades and in-state events this week to stress the importance, in their view, of repealing Obamacare (though plenty of lawmakers are keeping a low profile).

“Our activists would be very upset if repeal does not happen,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, stressing that she was optimistic that an agreement would still be reached because of its centrality to the Republican message for nearly the entirety of the Obama administration. “I want to go back and restate, this issue motivates them more than any other issue we’ve taken on.”

Certainly, there is still time for Senate Republicans to come together around a repeal bill. Lawmakers are well aware of the political imperative to do so—and while it took the House of Representatives two tries, a measure was eventually passed there earlier this year.

Some activists, however, are making clear that they will not support the ultimate Senate bill if it is not comprehensive in dismantling the Affordable Care Act (which puts them at odds with more moderate members).

Fleming, of Texas, bristled at pro-Trump efforts earlier in the process to force the more moderate Nevada Sen. Dean Heller to get in line, and warned that outside groups shouldn’t apply that pressure to lawmakers who have concerns with the bill from a conservative standpoint, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Cruz is working to push the bill in a more conservative direction via an amendment, an effort for which the White House has suggested support.

But Fleming warned outside groups to lay off as the negotiating process unfolds.

“I’m going to be very clear: They come into Texas, start messing around with Texas politics, they’re in peril,” she said. “You may absolute quote me on that!”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck

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