WASHINGTON—Jim DeMint, former Republican U.S. senator and current president of The Heritage Foundation, stared out into a crowded hotel conference room in Wilmington, Del., in late August. The standing room-only gathering had come to the last stop of a nationwide “Defund Obamacare” tour put on by DeMint and Heritage for Action, the political organization related to the conservative think tank.
“You’re all packed in here tonight,” DeMint said to the more than 400 attendees. “A lot of people are having to stand up along the walls. But we did that on purpose. We wanted to simulate what it’s going to be like in a doctor’s office in about a year or so.”
The traveling town halls played to full houses at all of the tour’s nine-city stops last month. Roughly 500 showed up at events in Tampa, Fla., and Indianapolis. More than 650 people attended the town hall in Columbus, Ohio, with 300-plus attending a rally in Fayetteville, Ark. More than 1,000 people flocked to hear DeMint in Dallas.
Obamacare opponents now must wait and see whether those numbers are enough to get lawmakers to act on the healthcare reforms when they return to Washington on Monday.
The massive healthcare law goes live Oct. 1. That’s when individuals can begin enrolling for coverage that starts Jan. 1, 2014. And at every town hall stop, DeMint’s message was the same: This may be the last chance to stop Obamacare.
Speaking to mostly like-minded crowds of grassroots conservatives, DeMint quoted one of former President Ronald Reagan’s truisms: “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.”
“This is the time,” he told the gathering in Tampa. “This might be the last off-ramp for us to stop Obamacare before it gets so enmeshed in our culture that it’s impossible to change.”
DeMint is backing a plan to use upcoming budget debates in Washington as leverage for gutting Obamacare. The strategy involves lawmakers pledging to vote only for federal spending resolutions that keep the government running if they contain no dollars for Obamacare. Congress, returning after its August recess, has to pass a budget this month or the federal government will shutdown on Oct. 1.
“I cannot think of anything more un-American than national, government-run healthcare,” DeMint told a crowd in Delaware. It was a comment Obamacare supporters later singled out for attack. He added that liberals see as “their holy grail taking control of the healthcare system. If they can control that, they can control most of our lives.”
The crowds at DeMint’s town halls cheered the latest defund Obamacare strategy. His challenge, though, was that lawmakers, the ones with the votes on Capitol Hill, were hard to find at the rallies. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined DeMint at the Dallas gathering. And the senator's father, fast rising conservative star Rafael Cruz, prayed the opening prayer at the tour stops.
But few other lawmakers either attended the tour or touted the defunding plan at their own gatherings. DeMint is hoping the attendance numbers at the rallies will send a message to Republican lawmakers.
“We’ve been talking about it for a few years now, and all the Republicans when they campaigned said ‘I promise you I will do everything I can to repeal Obamacare,’” he told the Columbus gathering.
“Lies,” a woman in the crowd called out, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
Ohioans are bracing for an estimated average 41 percent premium increase for individuals buying insurance on Obamacare’s exchanges. The Ohio Department of Insurance also estimates that costs to insurance companies would increase by 83 percent.
“They’ve done symbolic votes to repeal Obamacare,” DeMint said of Republicans in Congress. “But the real act of courage is if they get back in September and they pass a bill funding all operations of government except Obamacare.”
The fear among some Republicans is that the Senate will refuse to pass any spending bills with no Obamacare funding, and that President Barack Obama would surely veto any bill that contained zero dollars for what he considers his top legislative accomplishment. Republicans worry they will get the blame if the government is shut down over an Obamacare clash.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called the tactic the “dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
But DeMint spent his town halls arguing that Obama should get the blame if the government shuts down. It would be the president, he argued, who would refuse to sign a spending bill Congress sends to him that keeps the dollars flowing to everything but Obamacare.
“If they pass a bill when they get back in September,” DeMint said, “and they fund government and they go out and say, ‘We funded the government, Mr. President, it’s your decision whether to accept that funding or shut the government down,’ I think it’s an argument we can win.”
Many attendees at the rallies jeered conservative lawmakers for backing down on pledges to do everything possible to defund Obamacare, and they promised to hold those lawmakers accountable.
“Through the ballot box, we can make them shake in their boots,” Rafael Cruz said in Tampa. “You vote the right way or we’re going to vote you out of office!”
DeMint supports an alternative plan that includes permitting small businesses to partner in healthcare coverage so they can share resources and allowing individuals to purchase health insurance across state lines so that more competition drives down prices. But the focus of the summer rallies, DeMint said, was “helping people understand that we can still stop this.”
It remains to be seen if the grassroots voices were loud enough to get more lawmakers to act. The volume and intensity of town halls this August did not approach the levels seen in the summer of 2009. Those meetings shook lawmakers, reverberating all the way to Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, DeMint and other conservatives opposed to Obamacare are not the only ones engaging in summer stumping. On Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton gave a lengthy, detail-laden speech defending Obamacare at his presidential library in Little Rock, Ark.
Acknowledging that “this law has generated a lot of opposition,” Clinton tried to make the case that “there are no real alternatives to fix the current system.”
“I think we should all work together to implement this law, whether we supported its passage or not,” he said. “It’s better than the current system, which is unaffordable and downright unhealthy for millions of Americans.”
Tellingly, at least one lawmaker was absent from Clinton’s pro-Obamacare appearance. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., was nowhere to be found. He voted for the healthcare law despite labeling himself a moderate. Pryor’s support for Obamacare is expected to be a key item of debate as he seeks reelection this November against Rep. Tom Cotton, a Tea Party Republican.
Clinton’s speech kicked off a slew of planned star appearances orchestrated by the White House this fall as it tries to enhance Obamacare’s image and reputation. This spin and promotion for Obamacare is expected to carry a $684 million price tag for taxpayers. That includes a $75 million marketing budget for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and an estimated $67 million in grants awarded to 105 groups across the country, including Planned Parenthood, to enroll individuals into the program. There is even an Obamacare video contest, sponsored by the HHS, providing cash prizes for winners.
As conservatives work to defund and White House officials work to defend Obamacare, many Americans seem to be confused—four-in-10 think the law already has been repealed, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll.