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Democrats Rally In Dozens Of Cities To Oppose Obamacare Repeal

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stands on stage during the "Our First Stand: Save Health Care" rally at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., on Sunday.
Rachel Woolf
Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stands on stage during the "Our First Stand: Save Health Care" rally at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., on Sunday.

With little power left in Washington, Democrats set out on Sunday to make a big statement against GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act with rallies in dozens of cities.

It's also a step for the party toward regaining its footing after grassroots efforts in 2016 failed to keep the White House in Democrats' hands.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate and whose populist candidacy in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary was boosted by a strong online following and small-dollar donations, headlined the day. He was recently named to a leadership post among Senate Democrats as chairman of outreach.

Sanders used his vast email list from the campaign to help organize support for Sunday's rallies in support of Obamacare, which stretched from an event led by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco to one featuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Boston.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley even led a sing-a-long at the Utah State Capitol.

Warren told an energized crowd outside Faneuil Hall in Boston, "We knew these fights were coming, and now the first one is here."

In San Francisco, Pelosi insisted, "We're not going back."

Sanders and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer went to Warren, Mich., and although Schumer will soon be the most powerful Democrat in Washington, it was Sanders who was the star. Signs like, "Don't blame me - I voted for Bernie" dotted the crowd, and Schumer had to pause his speech for a chorus of "Bernie, Bernie" cheers when Sanders walked on stage in the middle of the New York senator's remarks.

It's no accident that Sanders and Schumer chose to hold their event in Warren. Surrounding Macomb County tells the story of Democrats' 2016 woes. It went narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but last year Donald Trump carried Macomb County by more than 10 points over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Trump's raw vote total in the largely white, working-class county - about 48,000 votes - was more than four times his margin of victory in the once-reliably Democratic state.

Both Sanders and Schumer believe Democrats can recapture economy-focused working class voters, and holding a rally in Macomb County to defend a healthcare program is one way to show voters who supported Trump that the Democratic Party is attentive to their concerns. Sanders told NPR last week that he could have gone to a lot of places: "But Michigan is a great state. It's a state where I did well in the Democratic primary. And is a state where Trump won." He beat Clinton in the state's 2016 primary.

At Sunday's rally, Schumer challenged Trump to keep a campaign promise not to cut entitlement programs as he fired up the crowd in support of the ACA. "We're gonna win this fight together — the American people and the Democrats in the Congress," Schumer said.

In reality, Republicans have enough votes to dismantle large parts of the Affordable Care Act, particularly elements that help fund the law, through a process that allows the Senate to pass budget measures with a simple majority instead of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster on most legislation. The GOP has 52 seats in the Senate. Democrats can play a bigger role in an attempt to repeal and replace the law full-scale, which would require 60 votes.

That's a dynamic Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow admitted when she spoke at the rally. "They've got the U.S. House, they've got the U.S. Senate, they're going to have the presidency. If they want to rip health care apart, rip Medicare and Medicaid apart, they can do that," Stabenow said.

Republicans point to big increases in health care premiums since the law was enacted, and the fact that many insurers are pulling out of healthcare exchanges created as part of the Affordable Care Act in some states. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also spoken in objection to the mandates on individuals and employers, as well as the taxes enacted to enforce and pay for the law, as evidence of "bad policy that does not accomplish what it was designed to do."

Republican leaders, including Ryan and Trump, say they will not repeal Obamacare without a replacement at hand. So far, there is no clear plan from Republicans for how to replace the law, but Ryan insists that will be hashed out at the end of January when congressional Republicans hold a retreat in Philadelphia.

Stabenow pointed to the face that Democrats' best hope is to generate enough public support for Obamacare — or enough public concern about fully repealing it — for Republican lawmakers to see a repeal as politically dangerous.

While Democrats point to the good the law has done, it's clear they have struggled on the messaging front. A poll released by NPR and Ipsos last week showed that less than half of Americans — including just 54% of Democrats — knew that the law reduced the number of people without health insurance.

But, while they would rather control the agenda, Democrats are beginning to discover something Republicans have known for the entirety of the Obama administration: It's often easier to generate public support around a simplified voice of opposition, than it is to find the votes to create and pass a complicated piece of legislation.

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Arnie Seipel is the Deputy Washington Editor for NPR. He oversees daily news coverage of politics and the inner workings of the federal government. Prior to this role, he edited politics coverage for seven years, leading NPR's reporting on the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections. In between campaigns, Seipel edited coverage of Congress and the White House, and he coordinated coverage of major events including State of the Union addresses, Supreme Court confirmations and congressional hearings.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.