Re­cess in Colorado of­fers no respite

Health care still a hot topic as Repub­li­can re­turns to Capi­tol Hill.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark K. Matthews

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.”

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