Ever since the election of Donald Trump, as he began to dominate the national political conversation, Democrats were under great pressure to have their own responses.
So it was with great seriousness that they gave their response this week to the vote by House Republicans to overhaul America’s health care system. Democrats will not be debating Trump’s tax cuts and what to do about immigration and the ongoing war in Syria.
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But Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, which had been under assault since its passage in 2010, had become a symbol for the “inequality” that their party said it was fighting against in 2016.
While it hadn’t gone to Democrats for a vote since it passed by an overwhelming party-line vote in the House in 2010, it had been the subject of occasional rhetorical attacks, notably from Trump’s Republican predecessor, Barack Obama. But, while Obamacare was undeniably unpopular, it was always clear that the Republicans would not go far enough to repeal it, at least not yet.
They were in the midst of the hottest and perhaps most expensive political season in living memory when House Republicans finally turned to the votes that would allow them to pass their plan to repeal Obamacare.
The bill had already gone through the Senate in June and was well on its way to approval in November before it was pulled on 15 October. Throughout the debate, its critics were swiftly denounced as “extremists” and the “far left”.
Soon after the collapse of the first draft of the bill, Democrats decided the time had come to speak up – after the Republicans had settled on their final bill and that might have meant a fight over amendments. And on Thursday they did, in a congressional hearing.
“Let’s be clear, what this House plan does is repeal Obamacare – by means of a bill that, by the way, this week, was endorsed by literally one of the largest insurance companies in the country, who also pointed out that their member’s premiums would go up dramatically if this bill passes,” Democrats said in an opening statement.
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The bill itself presented a huge, unanticipated challenge. It was too complicated to be negotiated with Democrats, so they fought their own, more straightforward version of it.
Every senator who held out from the first iteration ultimately voted to pass the bill, and the bill now goes to the Senate. Republicans have little incentive to further negotiate with Democrats, even if they should have no other choice but to agree to Democrats’ amendments.
Much of their dissent from the first draft came from new senators who had never fought to overturn the Affordable Care Act. And it wasn’t enough to stop the House bill passing the House. It was passed with Republicans who had been more comfortable voting to repeal the ACA than Democratic members who had won a near-landslide of the vote that could have deprived Trump of his initial victory in 2016.
It was also a message to the Democrats who had voted against the original repeal. The incumbent House members with districts that had voted for Trump in 2016 did not carry all their voters with them, but the Republican members of the House who voted to repeal Obamacare did.
“This vote is about your constituents, it’s about your campaign promise to be one of the new-generation Democrats who can never vote to just repeal a law that millions of Americans love,” Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, said in a statement.
It was also clear that at the moment, there was no longer any room for compromise. Instead, Democrats would need to defeat the bill in the Senate, and get even more than a narrow majority to do so.
“They don’t really have a firm position other than the repeal of Obamacare,” Sanders said. “We do.”