At a town hall in Pennsylvania on Wednesday night, Republican senator Pat Toomey faced an angry protest over his role in the GOP healthcare bill, while Ted Cruz was heckled over his suggested amendment to the legislation at an event in Texas.
Scores of people gathered outside the ABC27 studio in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Toomey was holding what had been billed as a town hall meeting.
But in reality just eight audience members were allowed into the invite-only event, and their questions had been pre-screened by the news channel.
The closed-door approach did not endear Toomey to the sign-waving protesters outside, who accused the senator of not “having courage to speak to people who would be personally affected” by the Senate healthcare legislation he helped to write.
Cruz, meanwhile, was heckled at what in theory should have been a safe event; a ticket-only town hall veterans discussion hosted by Concerned Veterans for America – a rightwing advocacy group financed by the Koch brothers.
Audience questions for Cruz at the event in McKinney, north of Dallas, had been screened in advance by the CVA, but two audience members went rogue to quiz and interrupt the Texas senator over his proposed tweak to the Senate bill.
The Better Care Reconciliation act, which the Congressional Budget Office says would leave an additional 22m people without healthcare, is currently stuck in the Senate without enough votes to pass. Cruz’s amendment would allow insurance companies to sell plans that do not include the Affordable Care Act (ACA)-mandated “essential health benefits”, in a move he claims would reduce costs.
At the town hall, however, Cruz’s adversaries repeatedly shouted him down as he attempted to defend his measure.
“When you mandate what every policy has to cover you drive” up the cost of insurance, Cruz said, which means fewer people can afford healthcare. The essential health benefits also made people pay for coverage “that they don’t necessarily want”, he said.
“It’s all fine and good to mandate that everybody get coverage for everything at all times, but what happens in practice is the prices go so high that people are left out in the cold.”
Some 1,300 miles to the north east, Toomey was being given a much easier ride from the eight attendees at his town hall. The majority of the questions from that crowd, as well as from small groups of people invited into the studios of three other ABC affiliates in Pennsylvania, focussed on healthcare, but there was no heckling and no follow-up questioning.
Toomey denied that the process of drafting the bill – which has no public hearings – had been overly secretive, but was non-committal over whether he supported repealing the ACA without a replacement.
The senator was asked the question twice, both times saying that he believed the scenario was “unlikely”.
“I just don’t think there are enough votes in the senate to pass that,” Toomey said. “I just don’t think it’s going to come to pass.”
Meanwhile, outside the studio about a hundred people noisily protested both the senator’s role in the unpopular healthcare bill and his refusal to hold a truly public event.
“We want Toomey to come home on his recess and actually speak with constituents, instead of doing telephone town halls or televised town halls where he doesn’t have to interact with the people he’s supposed to be representing,” said Katey Dyck in a phone interview, who travelled two hours from her home in Fort Washington, just north of Philadelphia, to attend the protest.
“He’s dismantling our healthcare system without having the courage to speak to people who would be personally affected.”
Dyck travelled to Harrisburg with her two children and two friends, one of whom, Alison Fraser, was arrested after staging a sit-in at Toomey’s Washington DC office last week.
“There are issues with the ACA. There are things they can do to bring down costs,” Fraser said.
“But they can’t just dismantle this bill that has really done so much to protect people, and make sure people aren’t discriminated against because of pre-existing conditions.”
“They’re giving a huge tax break to the 1% here,” Burkholder said, also by phone, of the Senate legislation.
“It’s just awful. Making a giant tax break for the ultra rich while simultaneously pulling the rug out from under the poor of the country is just disgusting.”
The majority of Senate Republicans have so far ducked interactions with the public during recess week – supposedly a time for elected officials to return to their districts and meet with constituents.
The Washington Post reported that just four GOP senators planned to attend Fourth of July parades, while only three – Cruz, Bill Cassidy from Louisiana and Jerry Moran from Kansas – are scheduled to hold public town halls.
Cruz and Moran are openly opposed to the Senate bill while Cassidy has said he is “concerned” and has put forward an alternative to the plan.