Senate Republicans’ decision to strike at Obamacare in their tax legislation may be just what Democrats and progressive organizers need to rally an otherwise distracted base.
The liberal activists who besieged the GOP’s health bill have yet to rise up as fiercely against the tax plan. They haven’t been helped with headlines dominated by the Roy Moore scandal and a Russia probe drawing closer to President Donald Trump.
But the GOP bid to repeal Obamacare’s mandate that individuals buy insurance gives them a powerful opportunity to engage the grassroots, liberal leaders say. And that’s good news for Democrats, who are eager to rev up their supporters as Republicans race to finish their tax bill by Christmas.
Republicans “have fired up our grassroots like we couldn’t have imagined,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in an interview. “This is a major tactical error.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and more than a dozen of their caucus members joined liberal activists outside the Capitol for a Wednesday rally against the Republican tax plan. Groups on the left are also ramping up their activity, with MoveOn.org Washington director Ben Wikler touting “hundreds of protests” in the works for the week after Thanksgiving, when the Senate GOP is expected to bring its tax bill to the floor. The House is expected to pass its tax bill Thursday.
Wikler compared liberals’ recent approach to the tax bill to the early days of the Obamacare repeal battle, when Trump seized headlines by firing FBI Director James Comey days after the House passed its repeal bill.
There were “so many different breaking stories all the time,” Wikler said, “and a vote far enough away that people didn’t feel like they needed to push everything else to the side to focus on it. That period is over.”
Yet it remains unclear whether the left can recapture the fury that ultimately helped tank Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare. Senate GOP leaders are projecting confidence in their ability to steer the tax plan through with a repeal of the health insurance mandate, which saves hundreds of billions of dollars that they can use to help pay for other individual and corporate cuts. Obamacare swing votes such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) did not immediately oppose the idea.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) acknowledged in an interview that it is “discouraging” and “disturbing” to see the full impact of the GOP tax bill “not even getting attention, with Roy Moore and all the things on TV right now.”
Republicans’ decision to include repeal of Obamacare’s insurance mandate “has raised attention,” Udall added, citing Democrats on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee who report a “pretty dramatic” shift in public focus.
One of those Finance panel Democrats from a state Trump carried, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, saw the White House court his support just last week. But Brown fumed on Wednesday at Republicans’ targeting of Obamacare in the tax bill, slamming the GOP for an “immoral” dismantling of former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Indeed, Republicans’ addition of the mandate repeal to the tax bill promises to make a “no” vote politically easier for Brown’s fellow red-state Democrats. Part of Senate Democrats’ recipe for victory on Obamacare repeal earlier this year was unity of opposition, from conservative Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The House minority is similarly rallying against their Republican bill.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) pointed to polling that shows the GOP tax plan is unpopular with the public, with a Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday that shows a majority of voters disapproving of the bill even before the addition of the Obamacare provision.
“I don’t think their initial product was all that successful,” Durbin said in an interview, “but they have complicated their political life by including this elimination of the individual mandate.”
Within the outside groups that Democratic leaders are leaning on for support as the tax fight picks up, organizers are optimistic that the turbulent pace of the Trump era won’t crowd out their efforts.
“We live in abnormal times,” Murshed Zaheed, political director at the liberal group CREDO Action, said in an interview. “We are dealing with a cluster bomb of explosive issues and oftentimes-daily bombshells that drop on Russia stories. We have this fiasco happening down in Alabama.”
But despite the noise generated by the investigation into potential Russian collusion by the Trump campaign and the furor over Moore’s alleged sexual assaults in Alabama, Zaheed said, “I do believe I’m seeing a lot of traction” with the Democratic base on taxes.
Angel Padilla, policy director at the liberal group Indivisible, urged Senate Democrats to increase that traction by replicating the same procedural obstruction they mounted during the Obamacare repeal battle to draw public attention to the GOP’s tax bill — a step that some in the caucus say is not getting ruled out.
Republicans are getting a boost from the distractions that Moore and Russia offer, especially as they try to pass the tax package so quickly, Padilla argued in an interview.
“The Thanksgiving break is in the middle of the fight, and it’s hard to pull people from their families in the middle of Thanksgiving,” he said. ” All of this is working against us. The timing is an issue.”