At a press conference on Friday, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, a Republican, sharply criticized the Senate version of Obamacare repeal, arguing that it “takes insurance away from tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Nevadans” and that “there is nothing in this bill that will lower premiums.” He called the idea that the legislation would reduce health care premiums for some Americans a “lie.”
“It’s going to be very difficult to get me to a yes,” he added.
Heller’s comments — particularly the sharpness of his opposition — were something of a surprise, because he had not been particularly vocal about Obamacare before. And while this is impossible to prove, it’s likely that the aggressive liberal organizing against the Obamacare repeal, both nationally and in Nevada, even before the formal release of the GOP’s Senate health care bill, helped move Heller against it. After all, Heller is perhaps the GOP senator most susceptible to liberal political pressure, because he is the only Republican in the chamber up for re-election next year in a state where Hillary Clinton won (by 2.4 percentage points) in November.
So now one of the big questions as this health care debate continues will be if the liberal “resistance” to Trump can keep Heller in the “no” column on the Obamacare repeal. He may have sounded firmly against the bill, but the last time the resistance was in this position on health care, they lost.
The intense liberal opposition to President Trump has had some clear successes during the five months of his presidency. The women’s marches, a day after Trump’s inauguration, drew huge crowds and were a visible illustration that the president would not get the honeymoon period that his predecessors had. People rushed to airports to protest Trump’s travel ban, which helped turn that controversial policy into a media frenzy. Angry liberals calling into the offices of Senate Democrats appeared to push the senators left and get them to start opposing Trump’s Cabinet nominees en masse. And throughout the year, even more moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have largely stuck with the party and opposed Trump’s key initiatives. For example, no House Democrats voted for the Obamacare repeal in that chamber, and all Democrats in the Senate are expected to oppose the Senate version of the legislation.
And that defeat included the defections of members of Congress who sounded like Heller on Friday — until they didn’t. In March, on the eve of an expected vote on the House version of Obamacare repeal, GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey said he couldn’t support the legislation, as he worried about the “loss of Medicaid coverage for so many people in my Medicaid-dependent state.” Frelinghuysen is in a state where Clinton won (Trump carried Frelinghuysen’s district but by less than 1 percentage point), and there had been strong liberal organizing in his district against the bill.
But on May 4, he voted for an updated version of the American Health Care Act that had very similar Medicaid provisions. Similarly, Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican who represents a district Clinton won by 16 percentage points, said he was leery of the March version of the House Obamacare repeal but voted for the arguably more conservative version in May.
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Heller could change his mind, too, as there is some evidence that he wants to see Obamacare rolled back. At a closed-door meeting of conservatives in April that was secretly recorded by a Democratic operative, Heller said, “I will do everything I can to get to a yes” on Obamacare repeal. And Heller has never appeared particularly liberal on health care, or overall. In fact, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump plus/minus rating, which measures how often a member votes with Trump compared to the politics of his or her district or state, Heller ranks second among GOP senators in taking the Trump position on key issues more often than expected. (The Trump position is nearly always that of the Republican leadership in the Senate.)