It was one thing for the overflow crowd packed intothe Defund Obamacare rally at Station Square last night to hear a lot of anti-Obama stuff, but what was surprising was how much of the criticism was directed at the Republican Party. The night, less surprisingly, also included a bonus counter-protest by Affordable Care Act supporters.
Mike Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action, kicked off his talk with a joke ("I've got to apologize to start off; this is the eighth city we've been in and somewhere along the way on this tour we lost the teleprompter") but two minutes in he was criticizing "the chattering class and the elites" in Washington, and saying Pat Toomey was in favor of gun control, prompting boos from the crowd. (His comment was in the context of Heritage and others having the power to defeat legislation they don't like, whether it be Obamacare or the Toomey-Manchin gun background check bill that was voted down in April.)
It is impossible to defund Obamacare in the continuing resolution on spending due Sept. 30, Needham argued, if only the GOP-controlled House showed the courage to do so.
"We were told the 2012 election was going so well that we were on a glide path to victory, that if we just didn't make ourselves the issue, if we didn't do anything to upset the American people, then we would do everything in 2013. Friends, we don't have any more time," he said.
Americans will "start getting addicted to the spending power of government" come January 1 when Obamacare officially launches, he said. "Now is the time to defund it . . . Can we stick together and hold our members of Congress accountable to the promises that they made us?"
"Yes, we can!" the crowd replied.
Former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint came on next, with a few more jokes and a bit more red meat ("Nationalization of health care is a dream of socialists. It has been for centuries"), and the tyranny of government trying to control American health, education, energy production, the free market economy and so on. When he began to say that nationalized medicine in England led to "thousands of people they were killing" due to poor hospital quality the pro-Obamare protest began.
In retrospect, it was odd that there were no pro-Obamacare protestors outside the hotel, as there had been Monday, or at the scenes of previous Heritage rallies elsewhere, including the day before in Columbus.
Silently eight people held up signs saying "LIE." When DeMint said "the left has been blocking improvements to our system for years" they silently held up the signs again. Private security officials wearing headpieces had briefed four off-duty Pittsburgh Police officers before the rally, telling them to escort out any protesters who might arrive, and they quickly appeared near the group sitting in a back corner of the room. A police sergeant told them no signs were allowed in the hall, and they were led out a side door without incident.
One of the organizers, PA Health Access Network, tried to give out pro-Obamacare leaflets while complaining about misinformation at previous Heritage events. The crowd shouted "USA! USA!" while they left, while a couple men near me yelled "Obama-lovers!" and "communists!"
DeMint finished his talk, and later there was a Q&A followed by a talk by Rafael Cruz, the father of defunding banner carrier Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
It appeared no local elected Republican leaders attended the session. The closest was 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Tom Smith, a Tea Party leader and businessman from Armstrong County.
Heritage is trying to pressure conservative members of Congress to hold off approval of all new federal spending by the Sept. 30 deadline unless funding for Obamacare programs is stripped out.
One-third of House Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus of Sewickley, have signed onto a letter signaling their support. Others including Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Bill Shuster, R-Blair who have not signed on have been attacked in online ads Heritage Action funded.
Toomey has also resisted promising to trigger a government shutdown, though he has deep ties to other conservative groups such as Club For Growth urging legislators to do so.
Toomey stated early this month that he agrees with defunding Obamacare but pushing a government shutdown may not be the best tactic. "The question is – would my signing [onto the pledge] help get this legislation dismantled, defunded or repealed sooner or not. I am not convinced that it would."
A protracted budget standoff could lead to a government shutdown, as the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Barack Obama will not agree to cut federal funding to Mr. Obama's biggest legislative victory. That has opponents of the Heritage effort, including the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, worrying the move would damage the nation's economy and GOP's image with voters.
Leadership, including House Speaker John Boehner, seem poised to instead use the October fight over raising the nation's debt ceiling to try to force cutbacks to the health law. That may not fly with the rank-and-file.
In a national survey of 1,000 likely Republican voters early this week, the right-leaning pollster Rasmussen Reports found 42 percent saying the shutdown threat will help their party, with 28 percent saying it will hurt.
Another survey released Wednesday of 1,503 adults nationwide by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 57 percent of respondents do not agree with defunding the law, even while on balance more disapprove of the law (42 percent) than approve of it (37 percent).
While all that goes on, supporters of the health care law (including those at PA Health Access Network) see the fight as a way to draw attention to popular parts of the legislation, including guaranteed coverage for those with preexisting health problems and for young adults up to age 26 on their parents' plans. After enrollment in health care plans begins Oct. 1, the next big step comes in 2014 when the individual mandate -- the requirement that most Americans have insurance or face fines -- kicks in. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the mandate last summer.
Pittsburgh has also been a front in radio ads critical of Obamacare produced by the conservative Americans For Prosperity. The ads note the law has been criticized by the Teamsters and some other unions – largely representing seasonal employees – who fear it will push employers to cut their hours or health coverage.
The union workers could seek alternative coverage through health exchanges, but they could not receive income-based subsidies to help pay as others can.
Leaders in the defunding Obamacare effort, including Sen. Cruz, plan to hold another rally Sept. 10 on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, one day after Congress reconvenes.
Photos: Michael Henninger/PG