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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Republicans in Congress have already taken the initial steps to start repealing the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are hoping to at the very least slow that process down by rallying public support for the health care law. Those rallies happened around the country over the weekend, and NPR's Scott Detrow went to one of the biggest in Warren, Mich.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: For the past eight years, Obamacare has mostly been defined by its Republican critics. They've railed against its costs, its scope and its mandates. On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to reframe the debate. Before the landmark health care law was passed, he said, coverage was out of reach for too many people.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
CHUCK SCHUMER: But average, middle-class people, the people of Macomb County, couldn't afford health care. Now they can.
DETROW: Macomb County, Mich., is an interesting place to make that argument. The county tells the story of Democrats' 2016 woes. It went narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but gave Donald Trump a 10-point win over Hillary Clinton. That more than accounted for Trump's razor-thin margin in the traditionally Democratic state. Schumer may soon be the most powerful Democrat in Washington. But on Sunday, he was the warm-up act.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
SCHUMER: And let me say this. Here's Bernie.
DETROW: The minority leader had to pause for all the Bernie cheers when the Vermont senator arrived in the middle of Schumer's speech. In Warren, Sanders delivered the message Democrats made at rallies all across the country. Obamacare may have taken a political beating over the years, they said, and it may need changes, but the law has become entrenched enough that an outright repeal would disrupt millions of Americans' lives.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
BERNIE SANDERS: If you want to improve the Affordable Care Act, let's work together. But if you think you're simply going to throw millions off of health insurance, you got another guess coming.
DETROW: Democrats are pleased with the amount of people who showed up at the rallies. Thousands came to San Francisco's City Hall, where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke. A large crowd also showed up in Boston to hear Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
ELIZABETH WARREN: We will make our voices heard.
DETROW: In Michigan, people stood outside in the cold for a variety of reasons. Connie Tucker said her family needs Obamacare.
CONNIE TUCKER: I'm on Medicare, but I have a grand-niece who is dependent on the Affordable Care Act. She has a pre-existing condition. She was born with a genetic anomaly.
DETROW: Terry Fields showed up more out of the general dread that so many liberals are feeling on the eve of Trump's inauguration.
TERRY FIELDS: I just believe that all of our rights and privileges are going to be taken away from us by Trump and the Republicans.
DETROW: Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow conceded to the crowd that the GOP has the votes it needs to ram through an Obamacare repeal if the party votes as a block. But she said the crowds that showed up across the country can slow a repeal down.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
DEBBIE STABENOW: If we aren't emailing and phone-calling and going to offices and speaking out and telling our stories, they're going to proceed.
DETROW: Emails, calls and public pressure on lawmakers from conservatives made Obamacare a political liability for many Democrats after it was passed. The party is hoping to use that same playbook against Republicans this time around. Sunday's rallies were a first step in putting the plan into action.
Scott Detrow, NPR News, Warren, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.