TROY, N.Y.― Rep. John Faso, a moderate Republican from upstate New York, must have known his constituents were going to confront him over his support for the health care repeal bill, which would have defunded Planned Parenthood. He held just one town hall meeting during the House’s spring recess, and it was outside his district, ticketed, carefully staged for television and limited to about 80 people.
But dozens of his constituents in this toss-up district, which he won by just 9 percentage points last year, traveled to Troy for the event Thursday night anyway. They lined up on the street in pink shirts and knitted “pussy hats” and held signs in support of Planned Parenthood.
“I think that he’s ducking us,” said Thalia Cassuto, 86, who traveled from Spencertown to stand outside in the cold and protest Faso’s town hall. “He’s made us into make-believe monsters, and we’re not ― we’re a very well-informed, very respectful group of constituents. But he won’t face us.”
Inside the town hall, questions about health care and Planned Parenthood dominated the conversation. One woman confronted Faso, asking why he supported the GOP health care bill despite insisting throughout his career that he supports the family planning provider. Faso tried to have it both ways.
“I did not support the effort to remove [Planned Parenthood’s] eligibility for Medicaid funding. ... I voted in our committee for a Democratic motion to strike that provision from the bill,” Faso said. “The majority of my party doesn’t agree with me on this topic. But my vote, ultimately, on the bill is going to depend upon whether I think overall it makes good public policy sense.”
Cassuto was not satisfied with his answer. She has been an ardent supporter of Planned Parenthood since 1955, when, as a “young bride,” she first visited a clinic in Queens for birth control. Now she shows up at Faso’s office once a week to shame him for supporting the American Health Care Act, which would have prevented Medicaid from reimbursing Planned Parenthood for its health and family planning services to low-income women.
“He has said clearly that he supports Planned Parenthood and he doesn’t want it defunded, and then the first thing he did was vote for a health care act that would destroy the relationship between Medicaid and Planned Parenthood,” Cassuto said. “He just plain lies, and we know it.”
Planned Parenthood supporters have many reasons to be concerned. President Donald Trump signed legislation Thursday that would allow states to withhold Title X federal family planning funds from health providers that offer abortion, even though no public dollars can legally be used to pay for abortions. Planned Parenthood uses the $70 million it receives in Title X grants each year to provide birth control and other preventive health care to 1.5 million low-income patients ― about one-third of the patients in the Title X program.
And Republicans are still looking to defund Planned Parenthood, even though they failed to do so in their legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. Moderate Republicans, such as Faso, face a tough choice: break from their party on one of its biggest policy promises to defend Planned Parenthood, or take an unpopular vote to strip Medicaid money from the family planning provider. Three out of four Americans want the federal government to continue contracting with Planned Parenthood.
Now that congressmen are back in their districts during the congressional recess, the ones who voted against Planned Parenthood funding are feeling voters’ wrath. Vulnerable Republicans are having an especially difficult time defending their decision. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) was loudly booed at his town hall in Mount Olive Township, New Jersey, on Wednesday, when he suggested breaking Planned Parenthood into two businesses: one that offers women’s health care that he likes, and the other for women’s health care that he doesn’t like.
“What I have suggested to Planned Parenthood is that it have two separate organizations ― one organization that deals in the services regarding women’s health and another organization that performs the abortion procedure,” he said. “I would hope that Planned Parenthood might look at that.”
A video quickly circulated of the crowd’s angry reaction to that suggestion.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) faced a similarly rowdy group of constituents on Thursday. The audience chanted, “You work for us! You work for us!” when he reiterated his support for GOP efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
Faso acknowledged at his town hall that he chose to do only one, small, televised event outside his district after seeing his colleagues struggling to deal with loud, angry crowds in their own districts. He tried to pivot to other GOP-friendly topics, such as taxes, but his constituents kept driving the conversation back to health care.
“You mentioned several times that the main concerns of your constituents are jobs and taxes. Have you heard any of that come up tonight?” one man asked Faso, prompting laughter and applause from the audience.
Backed into a corner, Faso promised to buck his party on some issues if necessary.
“I’m not an automatic party-line vote by any means,” he said. “I’ll tell you this. I’m a fiscal conservative and a pragmatic individual who wants to solve problems in Congress.”
Cassuto predicted that if Faso continues to vote against Planned Parenthood, he is going to have trouble getting re-elected in 2018 ― even with the backing of conservative billionaires.
“We have a very lively, very passionate, freshly enthused group of constituents,” she said. “We can’t out-raise David Koch, but we will try.”