With Senate Sit-In, Health Care Advocates Refuse to Gamble that McConnell Will Fail - Manhattan Express | Manhattan Express

With Senate Sit-In, Health Care Advocates Refuse to Gamble that McConnell Will Fail

City Councilmember Corey Johnson being arrested after sitting-in at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on July 19. | Office of Councilmember Corey Johnson

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | One day after efforts by the Trump administration and the US Senate’s GOP leadership to dismantle President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act appeared to have collapsed, up to 500 activists descended on Senate offices demanding that Republicans work on “providing health care rather than taking it away.”

That’s how Eric Sawyer, the vice president of public affairs and policy at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, explained the efforts of his group and other health care advocates in Washington on July 19.

In tandem with hundreds of others — including about 200 New Yorkers representing Housing Works, VOCAL-NY, Rise and Resist, Gays Against Guns, ACT UP, and Positive Women’s Network, as well — GMHC staff and clients staged sits-ins at the offices of the 49 GOP senators who had not yet rejected Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s call for an outright repeal of Obamacare without putting forward any immediate replacement.

That was the strategy McConnell adopted on July 18, after it became clear the Republicans lacked the 50 votes needed to pass his Obamacare replacement bill. The repeal with no replacement option has been scored by the Congressional Budget Office as even worse than McConnell’s replacement bill, leaving 32 million more Americans uninsured by 2026, versus the 22 million who would be forced out of care under the measure the GOP leadership had abandoned.

Events, however, quickly overtook that provisional strategy. Three Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — didn’t even need the CBO scoring to reject the outright repeal option, announcing their opposition just hours after McConnell signaled his intentions.

By July 25, the GOP had abandoned any specific legislative solution, instead marshaling 50 votes plus Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaker to simply open debate on a range of options. As Manhattan Express goes to press, that debate is still underway, though the replacement plan McConnell favored failed on a 57-43 vote and the repeal-only option failed 55-45. But the fact that some form of repeal remains possible made clear the savvy activists exhibited last week.

City Councilmember Corey Johnson, the out gay Health Committee chair, explained he was unwilling to bet against McConnell’s ability to yet turn things around.

“The fight isn’t over as we saw with the House, where Paul Ryan pulled a rabbit out of a hat,” Johnson said as he headed over to sit-in at McConnell’s office, where he was later arrested. “The fight has to continue until straight repeal and repeal and replace are both abandoned by the Republicans.”

As New York State’s only openly HIV-positive elected official, Johnson said he was in Washington as one of hundreds of activists with pre-existing conditions that would be penalized severely under all the Republican alternatives that have been discussed. “So now we’re here to tell our stories and to fight back against any effort to curtail health care in this country,” he said.

GMHC’s Eric Sawyer being arrested on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. | Courtesy: Berlin Rose

Johnson said most of the protesters favor a single-payer approach that would truly deliver universal care, but he acknowledged that the only feasible next step as long as Republicans hold the Senate and House is a bipartisan effort to steady the insurance exchanges established under Obamacare. In a July 19 New York Times op-ed, Ohio’s GOP governor, John Kasich, a critic of Trump on health care, also emphasized the need for a bipartisan solution.

For his part, President Donald Trump, responding July 18 to the expected failure of a repeal-only vote, was not talking about any immediate fixes, telling reporters, “I’m not going to own it. I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail, and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”

Announcing that strategy out loud, however, may make it more likely that voters will come to see that the president does own any problems that become worse going forward.

The success health care advocates have enjoyed in mobilizing grassroots opposition to GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare is striking. Last week marked the third time GMHC and other New York AIDS advocates faced arrest in Washington this month. Hundreds of activists have been arrested in Senate sit-ins this month, with 155 cuffed on July 19. On Tuesday, 95 demonstrators were arrested in the Senate gallery as they chanted, “Shame, shame, shame.”

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