WASHINGTON ― When House Republicans returned home this week for a long Easter recess, they found themselves facing rooms packed with loud, furious constituents — and in some cases relied on extra security.
It turns out, governing with complete control of the federal government is harder than Republicans may have expected. After failing to rally enough support to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last month, the party has struggled to come up with a coherent legislative agenda, and the scandal-ridden Trump administration isn’t helping.
Despite the hostile atmosphere, a number of rank-and-file Republicans held town hall meetings in their districts. Health care dominated the conversation. But constituents also wanted answers on immigration, climate change, Russia, and whether lawmakers were going to demand President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
Constituents greeted Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) on Wednesday with boos and hisses at his town hall, where gigantic sand trucks were parked outside and officers patrolled with K-9 units on the ground and the roof.
The audience members pressured Lance, who ultimately pulled his support of “Trumpcare,” to do more to fight his party’s Obamacare repeal efforts. Republicans have continued to negotiate over a repeal and replace plan, but the deep divisions between the right and center wings of the party present a near insurmountable barrier.
“You have the majority, so govern,” attendees shouted at Lance.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) also faced constituents’ anger over health care. The congressman — who is perhaps best known for shouting “You lie!” at then-President Barack Obama during an address to Congress in 2009 — had his own words thrown back at him by rowdy attendees. The chant started after Wilson claimed that Obamacare was obstructing health services, according to The New York Times.
Moderate Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) took heavy fire from hundreds of constituents at two town halls for helping House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) craft the GOP’s Obamacare replacement bill, which would have left an estimated 24 million people uninsured. One resident in his district accused him of abandoning the “middle way,” according to The Oregonian.
“I feel you’ve abandoned me for the right, the far right,” Gretchen Kimsey, who has lived in The Dalles, Oregon, for 50 years, told the congressman. “Where are you, Greg Walden?”
Health care was also the theme in Colorado Springs, where Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn fended off questions from a heavy liberal bloc. One woman told Lamborn she feared how changes in health care policy would affect her son, who has a rare disability. “I have to choose between paying my mortgage and paying my son’s medical care,” she added.
In several states, constituents attacked their representatives for failing to hold the Trump administration accountable. In California, one town hall attendee called Republican Rep. Tom McClintock “a rubber stamp for Donald Trump.” The audience also asked McClintock about investigations into potential ties between Trump campaign aides and Russia.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) took heat from constituents who wanted answers on Trump’s tax returns and conflicts of interest.
Given the strong presence of liberal activists at the events, it’s not surprising that the topic of climate change also came up. In Mesa, Arizona, they booed loudly when Republican Rep. Andy Biggs, a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, explained why he had doubts about climate change, according to the Arizona Republic. And while Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) acknowledged that “the climate changes” at his town hall, he also fended off boos when he added, “the data set we’re dealing with is very small,” MLive.com reported.
Since Trump’s inauguration, Republicans have faced tougher crowds during their visits home, but the April recess is one of the longest breaks they’ve had this year ― giving voters ample time to pressure them.
In some cases, frustrated organizers held town halls for Republican lawmakers who never showed. Hundreds of people attended an event in Indiana on Sunday with the hope of luring Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) into discussing health care. When she didn’t attend, they resorted to writing questions on index cards to be delivered to her later, according to WNDU.
And about 500 people gathered at a banquet hall in Howell, Michigan, on Tuesday to interrogate a cardboard cutout of GOP Rep. Mike Bishop after the congressman held “listening sessions” capped at a few dozen people the day before.
Speakers blasted Bishop for trying to repeal Obamacare and encouraged attendees to get involved in efforts like a campaign to put a redistricting amendment on the state ballot in 2018.
In Oklahoma, GOP Rep. Markwayne Mullin got into a testy exchange with constituents, telling them they don’t pay his salary, according to a video posted on Facebook.
“You say you pay for me to do this? That’s bullcrap,” he said. “I pay for myself. I paid enough taxes before I got here and continue to through my company to pay my own salary. This is a service.”
Mullin later canceled a different town hall 15 minutes before it started, citing “safety concerns.” The abrupt cancellation was a surprise for constituents on both sides of the aisle. Pamela Coonce, president of Cherokee County Republican Women, told the Tahlequah Daily Press, they were “very disappointed, and none of us are really sure what happened.”
Other conservatives simply blamed liberal activists for the disruptions.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was heckled and booed at a town hall earlier this year, and said he’s not holding any during this recess.
In an interview with USA Today, Brat characterized protesters showing up to Republican lawmakers’ town halls this way: “We were asleep; we thought Hillary was going to get in. We’re ticked off, so we’re going to take it out on you.’”
Either way, Brat admitted, every Republican showing up to town halls across the country is “getting just annihilated.”
Kate Abbey-Lambertz, Andy Campbell and Ryan Grenoble contributed reporting.