The Tea Party made its name with its outraged appearances against healthcare reform at Congressmembers' town hall meetings during the August recess in 2009. With one of the first major milestones of that reform (lovingly dubbed "Obamacare") approaching on October 1, Tea Party advocates pledged to reignite that outrage. As two members of Congress can attest, pushback from conservative activists has begun. One of those members handled it better than the other.
Talking Points Memo found video of the exchange between North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger and a few of the people who came to his town hall meeting on Monday. In 2009, the demand was that members of Congress oppose any reform. In 2013, the demand is apparently that they defund the program — something which the Republican House has tried dozens of times. Pittenger is asked flatly: Will you vote to defund Obamacare? His response, replayed about six times in the clip: "No."
Pittenger offers a reason. He points out that such a vote is kind of futile since a move to defund the program would need to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president. "Do you think Harry Reid is going to pass that in the Senate?," he asks the questioner. "It doesn't matter," comes the response.
What's interesting is that the Republican Party, of which Pittenger is a member, tried to inoculate its members against this kind of response. In a 31-page plan that became public last month, it suggested holding thematic meetings centered on particular topics. A roundtable with doctors for example. Or an "Emergency Health Care Town Hall," emphasizing media-friendly stories about how people have been affected by health care problems. But Pittenger didn't go that route. He held an open, generic town hall, and got an earful.
On Tuesday afternoon, Pittenger clarified his answer. His office released a statement titled, "Congressman Pittenger Strongly Supports Responsible Steps to Defund or Replace Obamacare." It lists the various measures he's backed that would curtail the program. He repeats his concerns about the prospect of the Senate defunding the program, but somehow thinks they'll go for something less: "Because Democrats control both the Senate and White House, I am also pushing efforts to repeal the most damaging portions of Obamacare, including a provision that would force student workers and single parents to purchase insurance they don’t need or can’t afford."
It's not entirely Pittenger's fault that he got tripped up. The ongoing feud over how to fight against Obamacare has split Capitol Hill Republicans from each other. Pittenger's stated effort to keep young people out of the Obamacare mandate is more in line with how large conservative groups are pushing. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius on Monday called efforts from those groups to block enrollment in the government's health exchanges "dismal," as reported by the Huffington Post. If they were to succeed in halting enrollment in the government's exchanges, it could also be highly problematic for the program. Getting healthy young people involved is critical for its success, which is why the president made a strong push to that end last month. (Efforts to encourage that enrollment by Organizing For Action, the advocacy group that picked up the reins from Obama's 2012 campaign, have gotten a slow start.)
Pittenger wasn't the only one to get a question on defunding Obamacare. Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois handled similar questions with a bit more aplomb. Also asked if he could be counted on to vote to defund Obamacare, Schock simply replied, "Please do" — and then he offered similar qualifications to his position as those released by Pittenger. Far from outraged, everyone appeared quite happy with the response.
Members of Congress: Expect Obamacare to come up. And when it does, try the Schock method in response.