At a town hall-style forum in Austin on Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz said it was "critical" for Republicans to honor their promise of repealing the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.
"We have had – for seven years – we have promised to do that," he told an audience at the Renaissance Austin Hotel. "We have had election, after election, after election – repealing Obamacare was the single biggest factor producing a Republican House, a Republican Senate and, I think, ultimately a Republican president."
The forum was one of three statewide events billed as conversations with veterans about how to improve the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. But, as with the other two events he's held during the congressional recess, the health care debate in Washington took center stage.
The event was open to the public, but attendees had to register in advance. The Republican senator spent the first 15 minutes discussing bills he has introduced aimed at improving IT and resources at the VA. Then during a question and answer period, audience members asked about the Senate health bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act.
"I was wondering with the new health care law coming out, will it impact veterans at all?" one audience member asked.
"All right," Cruz said after someone yelled for him not to vote for it. "Let’s talk a little bit about Obamacare and about the current congressional debate and efforts to repeal Obamacare."
Cruz was among a small group of senators who crafted the Senate bill behind closed doors. After the bill was presented, he and others then said they didn't support it, causing a vote on it to be delayed. Cruz has said the bill doesn't do enough to lower premiums and has proposed an amendment in hopes of making it more palatable to other Republicans.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, more than 20 million people will lose health insurance in the coming years if the Senate bill is passed. The bill also proposes deep cuts to Medicaid, prompting an audience member to point out that 1 in 10 veterans is on the federal health care program.
Cruz said he thinks there are ways to improve the bill to get it passed. And he said it’s very important it does.
"I still believe we can get it done," he said. "I have spent the last six months working hard to bring Republicans together, to bring conservatives and moderates and leadership all together and get this done. I believe we can get to yes, I don’t know if we will."
Earlier in the day, he told KTSA Radio in San Antonio that not passing a repeal would be a huge setback for congressional Republicans.
"I think it would be catastrophic," he said. "I think we look like laughingstocks if we can’t get our act together and actually do what we said we would do.”
More than a dozen Austin groups demonstrated outside the hotel before Thursday's forum. They said thousands of veterans will lose health coverage under the current version of the Senate bill.
Protester Elizabeth Bray, whose husband and daughter have pre-existing conditions, said the bill feels unfair. She said she doesn’t like that there are tax breaks for the wealthy and that the current plan doesn’t include a way to make sure her family doesn’t get priced out of health insurance in the future.
"They didn’t ask to be born with those conditions," she said. "And do the rich really, really need a whole lot more?"
Senate leadership says it plans to have a bill to move to the floor for a final vote in the coming weeks.
This post has been updated throughout.