Protests overshadow testimony at Senate Finance Committee hearing on GOP healthcare bill

Sen. Bill Cassidy testifies during the Senate Finance Committee's hearing on his ACA repeal and replacement bill on Monday.

The Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on Monday about the Graham-Cassidy bill was full of some memorable exchanges, but they paled in comparison to the dramatic scene that unfolded as it began.

As soon as Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, tried to start the proceedings, protesters quickly drowned him out by loudly chanting "No cuts to Medicaid, save our liberty!" from both the small hearing chamber and out in the hallway.

As the Capitol Police moved in to arrest them—which in some cases involved dragging out wheelchair-bound individuals—Hatch was not shy about expressing his annoyance. “If you want a hearing, you better shut up," he said at one point.

After a brief recess to restore order, Hatch restarted the hearing by acknowledging that there are “strong opinions” about healthcare policy, but also exhorting those in attendance to have a civil discussion.

That didn’t stop both senators and witnesses, however, from employing some fiery rhetoric. For example, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, the committee’s ranking member, called the Affordable Care Act repeal-and-replace measure “about as popular as prolonged root canal work.”

But GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the authors of the bill, took a swipe at Wyden while also touting the concept of state flexibility. “If you want to go to single-payer healthcare, you can do it in Oregon, but you’re not going to drag me along with you,” he said.

Graham also touted health insurers’ opposition to the bill as a positive, saying it takes hundreds of millions of dollars that was going to those companies and instead gives that money to states.

Former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum similarly downplayed opposition to the bill, drawing a parallel between pushback against welfare reforms enacted in the mid-1990s. “I see the hysteria that’s been developed around this bill, and it’s disturbing to me,” he said.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also took a walk down memory lane, though to send a different message. When discussing the problem with waiving the ACA’s essential health benefits, she recalled a 2009 exchange with then-Sen. Jon Kyl, who argued he doesn’t need maternity benefits.

"I think your mom probably did," Stabenow shot back at the time.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, meanwhile, relentlessly defended his bill under sometimes-intense questioning from senators, right up until the hearing adjourned around 7 p.m. There was one aspect of the measure he offered no defense for, however.

“I am so sorry about this process,” he told Wyden at one point, noting that he would have preferred to hold multiple hearings, allow markup and have a Democratic cosponsor.

But he pointed out that he and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, tried that roughly a year ago with a more moderate ACA replacement bill, which subsequently went nowhere. Now, Cassidy argued, his new bill is necessary to save the country from the ACA.

RELATED: Republican senators unveil ACA replacement that puts states in charge

“If there’s one thing we can agree on, on a bipartisan basis, Obamacare is failing,” he said.

Dennis G. Smith, the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ senior adviser for Medicaid and healthcare reform, was largely on Cassidy's side, arguing that the bill would rightly move power over insurance markets back to the states.

Arguing mostly against the bill however, were Teresa Miller, Pennsylvania’s acting health and human services secretary; Dick Woodruff, senior vice president of federal advocacy for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; and Cindy Mann, former director of the Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services and current partner at Manatt.

Miller, for example, noted that it piques state leaders’ interests when they’re offered more flexibility to mold their insurance markets. But massive funding cuts like those in the Graham-Cassidy bill, she said, are “not the kind of flexibility that we’re looking for.”