When I arrived at the Capitol at 11 pm on Thursday night, there were roughly 300 people protesting in the dark. They were young people, people in wheelchairs, parents with their kids, and seniors. They joined the hundreds of Americans who put their own bodies on the line over the past weeks to stop Congress from repealing the Affordable Care Act, decimating Medicaid and defunding Planned Parenthood.
Protesters went up to the mic one by one to give testimonials. Few of them had intended to do any public speaking Thursday night, but the long minutes before voting needed to be filled somehow. “This isn’t about other people,” a man in a wheelchair told the crowd matter-of-factly. “I will die if this bill passes.”
Another protester, Steven Stewart, spoke about his mother raising him and three siblings on welfare. He said he’d lost two of his partners, and lost his best friend to cancer. “You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a human being,” Stewart told Republicans inside the building. “They don’t know what it’s like to go to the bank and hit ‘balance.’ They just hit ‘withdraw.’”
As Senator Al Franken spoke to protesters, Elena Hung stood on the grass off to the side with her 3-year-old daughter, Xiomara, who was passed out in her stroller. Tubes tangled around her legs and led out of the stroller to an oxygen tank. One of her shoes was missing.
Why was it important to be protesting outside the Capitol with her 3-year-old at midnight on a Thursday? “It’s everything. My kid’s right here,” Hung said, then paused to think of what else to say. “It’s everything.”
Xiomara spent the first five months of her life in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. “169 days to be exact,” Hung told me. She rattled off Xiomara’s medical details with the rote candor of any parent who’s spent too much time in children’s hospitals: Xiomara has issues with her airway, lungs, heart and kidneys. She depends on a tracheostomy to breathe, along with a ventilator. She gets all her nutrition through a feeding tube.
“I would also describe her as a typical 3-year-old,” Hung told me. “She’s going to school this fall. She loves Sesame Street. She loves going to the playground. She loves going to the library. She’s a kid. She’s just a kid.”
In June, as news came out that the Senate might fast-track their Obamacare repeal bill, Hung decided to do something. Over birthday cake in her friend and fellow “trach mom” Erin Mosley’s kitchen, Hung came up with the idea for Little Lobbyists. Over the past month, the group has been everywhere on the Hill, storming the Capitol and forcing lawmakers to confront children with complex medical problems.
“We said, you know what? You’re in Louisiana, you’re in Ohio, you’re in Nevada. Send me your story. I will hand deliver this to your senator. I will bring my child so they can see what a child with disability looks like, and what is possible. And that’s what we’ve been doing for over a month now,” Hung said.
When Mosley was pregnant with her daughter Addison, a 20-week ultrasound revealed Addison’s lymphatic system wasn’t forming correctly. Addison couldn’t breathe when she was born, and received an emergency tracheostomy.
“She deserves better than this. She had a pre-existing condition before she was even born. She would have hit a lifetime cap, if our health insurance had one, before she left the NICU. She will require expensive medical treatments her whole life,” Mosley said. “This is everything.”
I asked Mosley what she would like to say to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. “I would say that I chose life. How about you?” she said.
A group of seven college-aged white male Trump supporters tried to blend into the crowd of protesters, and did a terrible job of it. They huddled in a tight circle, looking over one of their phones, smirking at the crowd’s earnest chants. A young man in a Delta Chi T-shirt tried to have a civil debate with a young female protester holding a Planned Parenthood sign. He eventually grew tired of trying to argue with her about tax reform and decided to switch tactics. He asked for her number.
A gangly teenager in a suit and bowtie, another member of the poorly disguised MAGA crew, tried to sign up for the list of protest speakers, but was turned away by an organizer. I asked the organizer if she knew who the guy was. She rolled her eyes at me. “An asshole.”
Over the past month, groups like Little Lobbyists and ADAPT made themselves so visible that no one could ignore them. They camped out in lawmakers’ offices across the country, got pushed out of their wheelchairs by police officers, got zip-tied and dragged down hallways. And on Thursday night, Congress, and everyone else who was paying attention, saw them.
In some ways, the scene on Thursday night felt like any other lefty political rally, albeit late at night. A woman got on the mic to tell the crowd her niece in Utah had ordered pizza for the protesters. Soon after, 20 boxes of Papa John’s showed up. People in the crowd passed out bottled water to each other. A few protesters lied down in the grass.
News came that Vice President Mike Pence was on his way to the Capitol to whip votes for the Senate’s so-called “skinny repeal” bill. A few minutes later, Pence’s motorcade rolled up to the Capitol and was immediately met with yells from protesters:
Pence went inside, and then it was time to wait. Protesters alternated between chanting and furiously refreshing Facebook and Twitter for any news out of the rotunda. McCain was acting cagey. He had told a reporter to “wait for the show,” which didn’t seem like a good sign. Murkowski and Collins still seemed like hard “noes,” but they needed a third. Would McCain come through at the last second, or would this be a replay of Tuesday night’s vote on the motion to proceed?
“Kill the bill! Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” protesters chanted. The chant echoed off the side of the Capitol and reverberated back to us, making it sound like there was an identical group of protesters hiding in the portico.
Then, some news: MoveOn’s Ben Wikler, acting as emcee of the protest, told the crowd that McCain had hugged Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “Hug John McCain! Hug John McCain!” Then: “Thank you Collins! Thank you Collins!” And then: “Stay strong Lisa! Stay strong Lisa!”
But a hug is not a vote, and after a week of letdowns, the protesters seemed cautious not to celebrate anything prematurely. The vote was open. McCain was MIA. Senate Republicans had turned their efforts to Murkowski, circling her—a real-time nature documentary playing out on C-SPAN.
Then, finally, the Big Good News came: Collins NO, Murkowski NO, McCain NO.
There were hugs and tears, chants of “Yes we did.” A man in an eyepatch who had spoken earlier in the night shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe it.”
I expected Erin and Elena to be elated about the Senate news. And while they definitely seemed relieved, that was accompanied by total exhaustion. These two mothers are used to receiving bad news, grinding through the bad days and taking solace in the good ones. They seemed to know better than perhaps anyone at the protest Thursday night that good news, while fleeting, can be used as sustenance for the next battle.
Senators started filing out of the building. Sen. Elizabeth Warren came out to speak first, and waded into the crowd to take selfies with the protesters.
“Go home! Get a little bit of sleep!” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy told protesters. But the crowd stayed, saving its biggest reception for Sen. Bernie Sanders.
While the young crowd feasted on the good news, Erin and Elena sat quietly off to the side, aware of the many more long nights to come. Elena checked the level on her daughter’s oxygen tank.
And through it all, Xiomara slept.
Correction: This post originally misspelled Erin Mosley’s daughter’s name. It is Addison, not Allison.