'Save our liberty!' Protesters in wheelchairs disrupt hearing on Obamacare replacement bill

Protesters in wheelchairs interrupted Monday's U.S. Senate hearing on the Republican health-care bill aimed at repealing and replacing Obamacare.

Republican hopes for Senate health-care bill flickering out as a handful of conservatives oppose

Colleen Flanagan of Boston, and other activists in wheelchairs, are removed by U.S. Capitol Police after disrupting a Senate finance committee hearing on the Graham-Cassidy health-care repeal bill on Monday. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Protesters in wheelchairs interrupted Monday's U.S. Senate hearing on the Republican health-care bill aimed at repealing and replacing "Obamacare."

"No cuts to Medicaid! Save our liberty!" they shouted at the Senate finance committee meeting.

The noisy protests forced committee chairman Orrin Hatch to recess the hearing just moments after it began. 

Hatch told the protesters, "If you want a hearing, you better shut up!" His complaint was to no avail as the protests continued. So Hatch then shut down the hearing, saying it would resume when order was restored. 

Police lugged some demonstrators out of the hearing room and trundled out others in wheelchairs. 

Police push a woman in a wheelchair as they detain her outside the hallway of the Senate finance committee hearing Monday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

The hearing comes as Senate Republicans pursue a last-ditch effort to pass legislation to tear down former president Barack Obama's health-care law. Prospects for the bill are uncertain as a decisive handful of Republicans remain opposed to the measure by senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy.

They appear to be short of votes ahead of a make-or-break deadline at the end of this week.

"We don't have the support for it," Hatch, of Utah, told reporters. 

Conservative Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, said he'd not abandoned his previously announced opposition to the measure, despite the revisions and energetic lobbying by President Donald Trump and White House officials. He complained that the bill spent too much and said Republicans were motivated by fear of punishment by conservative voters if they didn't succeed. 

"It's like a kidney stone: pass it, pass it, pass it," Paul told reporters. 

McCain, Paul oppose bill

The electricity in the room captured the high stakes as the two parties battle over whether to defend or obliterate Obama's 2010 overhaul of the U.S. health system. Three July failures by Republicans to push earlier bills through the Senate led Democrats to rejoice and infuriated conservatives, prompting Trump to repeatedly savage Republican senators who blocked the party's years-old goal of repeal. 

The Cassidy-Graham measure would end Obama's Medicaid expansion and subsidies for consumers and ship the money — $1.2 trillion through 2026 — to states to use on health services with few constraints. 

Overnight, the sponsors added billions of extra dollars for states and language easing Obama's coverage requirements in hopes of winning over wavering Republican senators. 

Police removed protesters one by one from the Senate finance committee hearing on Monday. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

But by Monday afternoon, Paul and Sen. John McCain of Arizona remained against the measure. Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins seemed a certain opponent, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was undecided and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was opposed, but senior aides said he was looking for changes so he could vote yes. 

With their narrow 52-48 majority and solid Democratic opposition, three Republican "no" votes would doom the bill. 

The Senate must vote this week for Republicans to have any chance of prevailing with their narrow margin. Next Sunday, protections expire against a Democratic filibuster, bill-killing delays that Republicans lack the votes to overcome. 

'Slap in the face': Trump

On Monday, Trump took on McCain, who'd returned to the Senate after a brain cancer diagnosis in July to cast the key vote that wrecked this summer's Republican effort. Trump called that "a tremendous slap in the face of the Republican Party" in a call to the Rick & Bubba Show, an Alabama-based talk radio program.

Later Monday, Trump tweeted a video montage of several times McCain spoke about repealing and replacing Obamacare, saying, "My oh my has he changed."

Cassidy and Graham defended their bill before the finance committee. 

"I don't need a lecture from anybody about health care," Graham told the panel's Democrats, whose party uniformly opposes the measure. Referring to Obama's 2010 overhaul, he added, "What you have created isn't working." 

Also appearing was Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, of Hawaii, who learned earlier this year that she has kidney cancer. She said colleagues and others have helped her battle the disease with compassion, saying, "Sadly, this is not in this bill." 

A protester is carried out by police. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Republicans provided documents stating that 34 states would get more health money under the bill than under Obama's law. Those included Alaska, Arizona, Kentucky, Maine and Texas. 

Democrats said the Republican numbers were deceptive because they omitted the impact of cuts Republicans would impose on Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled.

Graham and Cassidy's revamped proposal gives states more freedom to charge higher premiums for older and seriously ill people and to sell skimpy, lower-cost policies. The initial version required federal approval for such action. It would also let states unilaterally raise limits Obama's law has placed on consumers' out-of-pocket costs.