Recess in Colorado offers no respite
Health care still a hot topic as Republican returns to Capitol Hill.
WASHINGTON» U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner returns to Capitol Hill next week after a Fourth of July break in Colorado that was anything but a respite from the contentious debate over Republican plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Over the roughly week-long recess, Obamacare supporters ramped up their opposition with several ads and protests, including a Denver rally, a demonstration in Colorado Springs and a radio hit by AARP that specifically targeted Gardner, a Republican from Colorado.
Five protesters were cited Thursday at Gardner’s Denver office; a week earlier 10 demonstrators met a similar fate.
At the same time, a worry has taken root among some conservatives that the health care plan being drafted by Senate Republicans won’t go far enough in repealing the ACA.
Gardner took two meetings on health care during the recess: a visit to the Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs and a conference with executives and doctors at the Pioneers Medical Center in Meeker.
What Gardner didn’t do, and what he hasn’t done since March 2016, is hold a town hall meeting — a strategy that has frustrated liberal activists and set off a debate about the duty of elected offi-
cials to appear in public to hear their critics.
“The total lack of engagement makes it feel like it’s a broken contract,” said Katie Farnan of the anti-Trump group Indivisible Front Range Resistance.
Adding to the tension is the status of Republican efforts to unravel the ACA. Over the last two weeks, Senate Republicans have struggled to craft a bill that can appease enough GOP lawmakers to pass it without Democratic support.
Gardner and his colleagues will return to Washington with the goal of getting it done before Congress adjourns again for its August recess.
What that final product will look like remains an open question, as GOP lawmakers have exchanged several dueling ideas in recent weeks — such as one suggestion that Republicans just repeal the ACA and replace it later.
That kind of malleability, activists said, is why it’s critical for Gardner to hear from his constituents.
“They are making these laws that affect us dramatically, and they shouldn’t be doing it without input from their constituents,” said Chris Diehn, who said he was cited Thursday during a group sit-in at Gardner’s Denver office.
Beforehand, Diehn said he spoke for about 15 minutes with Gardner, who called the protesters to talk about health care.
“We were just talking past each other,” said Diehn, who is a member of the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Though the bill’s final language remains in flux, there is little doubt in Colorado political circles about where Gardner will stand at the end of the day — despite Gardner not taking a public position on the first Senate version when it was released in late June.
“In the end Colorado conservatives know that Cory Gardner is going to vote to repeal Obamacare and when there is a final bill Cory Gardner is going to be there,” said Guy Short, a political consultant and longtime Colorado delegate to the Republican National Convention.
This week, Gardner spoke optimistically of its progress while downplaying the idea of repealing the ACA without a replacement. “You have started to see positive directions from the bill,” Gardner said during a Thursday radio interview with KNUS that was posted online by BigMedia.org.
Even so, some conservatives have begun to grouse about the Senate bill’s direction, with national groups such as FreedomWorks pressing lawmakers to do more to undo Obamacare.
“Sometimes it’s just important to take a stand,” said Jim Hendrix, a Republican businessman from Yuma County who said he has known Gardner for about 30 years. “You can watch which way the wind is blowing — and that may be politically easy — but that’s not why you get sent to Washington.”
He added that he was frustrated that Republicans in Washington hadn’t done a better job of preparing to repeal Obamacare once they took power.
“It’s just disappointing to me,” he said.
The latest version of the Senate bill would eliminate a number of ACA rules and taxes — including a penalty for consumers who don’t buy health insurance — and scale back an expansion of Medicaid prescribed by the 2010 health care law.
It would cut the federal deficit by an estimated $321 billion over the next decade but cause 22 million more Americans to go without health insurance than if the ACA remained in place. Among those at risk of losing their insurance are 425,000 Coloradans covered by Medicaid because of Obamacare, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In response to the criticism about Gardner’s lack of town hall meetings, Gardner spokesman Casey Contres said the first-term senator has tried to connect with constituents in other ways. Among them: five phone conferences — sometimes called tele-town halls — with 51,000 constituents.
“Over the last few months Sen. Gardner himself or Sen. Gardner’s health care policy staff have had nearly 400 health care meetings with Coloradans or organizations that are involved in health care and have an impact on the state,” Contres said in a statement.
By way of comparison, Democrats point to the 2009 outreach of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet during the initial crafting of the Affordable Care Act.
That year, the Colorado Democrat held several town hall meetings across the state, including one session in Grand Junction when Bennet appeared alongside President Barack Obama.
Some of these stops were contentious; at one meeting in Burlington, Bennet was accused of talking past constituent concerns on health care. “You just keep going on, you don’t let anybody speak,” said one resident at the time. “You’re not listening to people.”
Gardner, Democrats have argued, has a similar responsibility to meet with state residents.
“The fact that Sen. Gardner refuses to engage with his constituents before voting to take away their health care just shows a fundamental lack of respect for the people he’s supposed to be representing,” Morgan Carroll, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, said in a statement.
Bennet has hosted several town hall meetings this year — though the current streak follows a long cold spell. For nearly two years, from May 2015 to March 2017, Bennet didn’t hold a single one; a time period that overlaps with his 2016 re-election run.
As for the recent July 4 break, a Bennet aide said the Democratic lawmaker didn’t schedule a town hall because he was on a congressional trip to Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.
Owen Loftus, a former spokesman for the state Republican Party, said it makes little sense for Gardner or other lawmakers to hold town hall meetings, given the desire of activists or partisans to create an awkward moment for a future campaign ad.
“They are not interested in hearing Cory Gardner talk. They want to shout him down. They want to embarrass him,” Loftus said. “I would not recommend a politician caving in to the demands of his or her opponents to have an event especially for them when you can have something like a tele-town hall where you can reach more people.”
But Farnan, who helped organize a February town hall without Gardner where health care was discussed, said he has a responsibility to stand before his constituents and hear their concerns.
“You need to defend your ideas, and you need to do it with your harshest critics,” she said. “That’s part of being a public servant.”