By David Weigel, Murray Carpenter, Julia O'Malley
For the 15th year, Maine Senator Susan Collins spent July 4 marching through the town of Eastport - population 1331, a short boat ride away from Canada.
She walked and waved, next to marching bands and Shriner-driven lobster boats. Her constituents cheered - and then asked whether she would vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act.
"There was only one issue. That's unusual. It's usually a wide range of issues," Collins said in an interview after the parade.
"I heard, over and over again, encouragement for my stand against the current version of the Senate and House healthcare bills. People were thanking me, over and over again. 'Thank you, Susan!' 'Stay strong, Susan!' "
Collins, whose opposition to the Better Care Reconciliation Act helped derail last week's plans for a quick vote, is being lobbied to smother it and make Congress start over.
Republicans, who skipped the usual committee process in the hopes of passing a bill quickly, are spending the Fourth of July recess fending off protesters, low poll numbers and newspaper front pages that warn of closed hospitals and 22 million people being shunted off their insurance. It was a bill, Collins said, that she just couldn't vote for.
"If you took a blank sheet of paper and said, 'How could we get a bill that would really hammer Maine,' this would be it," said independent Maine Senator Angus King, who walked ahead of Collins in the parade.
Few Republicans have responded like Collins, who let voters know where to find her. Last month, when Congress broke for the long holiday, just four of the Senate's 52 Republicans - Collins, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Dean Heller, and Senator Lisa Murkowski - announced appearances at Fourth of July parades. Just three - Cruz, Senator Jerry Moran, and Senator Bill Cassidy - said they would hold public town hall meetings. All have criticised the bill; three "no" votes would sink it.
Still, the relative scarceness of the senators - more of them joined a delegation to Afghanistan this week than scheduled town halls - challenged the busy liberal "resistance" movement.
Since the repeal debate began, protesters have made direct confrontations with elected officials a central part of their opposition to the Republican bill - copying what worked for Tea Party activists, who packed Democratic town halls during the lengthy 2009-2010 Affordable Care Act debate.
In the run-up to July 4, activists shared details of Republican appearances on sites created by the progressive group Indivisible ("Red, White, and You") and the crowdsourced Town Hall Project.
Democratic senators who spoke at a June 28 rally outside the Capitol repeatedly urged activists to make noise wherever they saw Republicans. It was the protesters, they said, who had repeatedly spoiled Republicans' plans to pass a bill and move on to tax restructuring.
A President who had once floated a special session of Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act had become distracted by feuds with the media. The "resistance," Democrats said, had not become distracted by anything.
"Thinking back to February recess, it was all we could do to keep up with your energy and follow all the incredible actions you took," Indivisible organisers wrote in a weekend fundraising message to supporters. "Over June, we were able to [move] methodically to target senators in specific states while also facilitating coordinated actions across the country. And as the delayed bill proves - THIS WORKS!"
Over the weekend, and on July 4, activists had only a few chances to prove it. In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell navigated around an estimated 85 protesters - many organised by Planned Parenthood - to tell Hardin County Republicans that he was still trying to solve the "Rubik's Cube" called the Better Care Reconciliation Act.
"Obamacare is a disaster," said McConnell, according to video captured by the Louisville Courier-Journal. "No action is not an option. But what to replace it with is very challenging."
McConnell did not explain how the Better Care Reconciliation Act might change, and some of the ideas floated to win votes have fallen flat with sceptical lawmakers. The idea of offering subsidies for cheaper plans that did not include the Affordable Care Act's "essential health benefits," favoured by Cruz as a compromise, did not satisfy Collins.
"If you have a health savings account that is federally funded, that equals the deductible, that can work, but it has to be designed right," Collins said. "I don't want to see insurance that's not really insurance."
Yet with protesters kept outside, McConnell faced no interruptions or sceptical questions. Cruz faced something else in McAllen, Texas, a city on the Mexican border that had voted heavily for Hillary Clinton last year. As Cruz grabbed a microphone, protesters behind a short fence waved signs reading "No Transfer of Wealth 4 Our Health" and "No Repeal, No Medicaid Cuts." Supporters with Cruz gear tried, in vain, to drown them out.
"Isn't freedom wonderful?" Cruz asked. "In much of the world, if protesters showed up, they would face violent government oppression. In America, we've got something different."
In a follow-up interview with the Texas Tribune, Cruz characterised the protesters as members of "a small group of people on the left who right now are very angry".
Other Republicans used similar language to explain why cutting back on open forums made sense. Some have pivoted to call-in events, where there's no threat of moments caught on video going viral. Some have cited the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise to argue that public forums would expose them and local police to unnecessary risks.
"The last thing we're going to do is give in to a lot of left-wing activists and media," Congressman Devin Nunes told a radio interviewer last month. "With these security situations, I don't know how any member of Congress can do a town hall."
The senators who did appear at Fourth of July events found ways to minimise the risks. Apart from Cruz, all appeared in fairly remote areas. After the parades, there will be few chances for Better Care Reconciliation Act critics to face their senators during the recess.