MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — Only five days after his vote in support of the American Health Care Act, Rep. Dave Brat became the latest Republican to return home and square off with hoards of angry voters at a town hall Tuesday evening. The public forum featured contentious exchanges, attendees nearly being thrown out for repeated disruptions and non-stop discussion of the bill and how it deals with pre-existing conditions.
At a church hall in suburban Richmond packed with 600 constituents, Brat took 35 questions from audience members over the course of an hour and a half, with much of the discussion — especially early on — focused on the bill and the effects on individuals with pre-existing conditions. Of the first 21 questions asked, 13 centered on healthcare, while 15 of the 35 questions overall were related to the issue, which has sent Democratic voters into a frenzy after the Thursday vote.
Throughout, Brat attempted to describe the language in the bill pertaining to pre-existing conditions, only to be shouted down by dissatisfied voters, many of whom voiced support for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders over President Trump when asked for a show of hands.
"Too often in D.C., everyone looks at D.C. because of the broken politics and the anger across the country. Too many people are ticked off because they think it's a zero-sum game," Brat said as he was interrupted by hecklers during his introduction. "Either I get it, or you get it. If we don't get over that, if we keep shouting at each other like this, you will not hear any solutions and no solutions will emerge."
Brat came on board in support of the AHCA due to the MacArthur/Meadows amendment that allows states to obtain a waiver to weaken key reforms within the Affordable Care Act to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. The bill passed by a 217-212 vote on Thursday.
Opposition came out en masse on Tuesday, including many sporting anti-Brat t-shirts or others featuring pro-Democratic messages, including from the Women's march in January. Even on issues where Brat and audience members seemed to find agreement, he was relentlessly shouted down, including on the Syrian strikes last month and on his calls for term limits.
While the majority of attendees made clear their disdain for Trump and the Virginia congressman, Brat was not without without some of their supporters. Scattered questions throughout focused on premium increases incurred by the ACA, while others focused on pro-gun topics, including concealed carry legislation.
"Dave Brat's keeping his word on what he campaigned on," said Joe Cacciotti, a Midlothian resident and an ardent Trump supporter. "He's working his butt off," he said of the president. "He's also doing what he said he was going to do ... It's just a matter of getting everybody else on board in his administration to do that work also."
Notably, Brat downplayed the lack of cheerleading and outspoken support amongst backers of the AHCA over the past two months despite immense and vocal opposition. He said that Republicans should go on offense messaging wise — an issue that plagued Democrats following the ACA's implementation — in support of the bill, and intimated that ads backing the legislation from outside groups would be encouraged.
"I don't think people get all that excited about policy in general. I mean, the negative — the politics excitement. But on policy itself? I mean..." he said trailing off. "We need to do a much better job of messaging. On that pre-existing [conditions] — you saw the crowd tonight. Everyone thinks falsely that that's an issue. It's not an issue. So we haven't done a good job at messaging on that, and so that's the challenge."
"I don't think you need to get so worried about the political races yet. You've first got to explain to the American people what the tradeoffs are, the context, how we're doing financially as a country, and then people can start to make some decisions about how we go on this thing," he added.
The town hall also took place only hours after Trump fired James Comey from his post as FBI director. When pressed numerous times, Brat declined to call for a special prosecutor to investigate Russia's involvement in the 2016 elections and argued that the ongoing investigations by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are up to the job.
Despite persistent blowback throughout the evening, Brat said that he will continue to be one of the few Republican lawmakers holding such events. According to a report, only 14 of the 217 Republicans who voted for the AHCA are holding town halls during the week-long recess. Brat told reporters prior to the event that House leadership isn't saying one way or another whether members should hold town halls.
"They don't really weigh in one way or another. I ran as being accessible ... I'm trying to be accessible, but I want to have an exchange of ideas," Brat said, adding later on that members should decide on their own whether to hold town halls. "That's up to them. They know their constituents, they know their district."