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Many of California's Republican members of Congress are saying very little about their party's healthcare bill

Many of California's Republican members of Congress are saying very little about their party's healthcare bill
Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) speaks at a Capitol news conference in 2016. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

Many of California's congressional Republicans represent districts with a large number of people who have insurance under Obamacare, and they're taking a cautious approach to the House Republican plan to replace the healthcare law.

A proposed replacement for Obamacare released earlier this week has drawn a firestorm of criticism on the left and the right. By Thursday, most of the 14 Republicans in the California delegation, including some of the seven who represent districts that backed Democrat Hillary Clinton for president, had said only that they were still assessing the proposed law.

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Millions of Californians would lose health insurance if the GOP bill is approved, experts have estimated, largely because 1 in 3 residents are covered by Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program that expanded under Obamacare, also known as the Affordable Care Act. The GOP bill would start phasing out federal funding for that expansion in 2020, leaving states to foot the bill or drop poor people from Medicaid rolls.

Since President Trump took office promising to repeal Obamacare, a flood of Californians have crowded Republican and Democratic town halls and held protests outside members' offices to press them on the future of the Affordable Care Act.

Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) is among those who have encountered those protesters and is taking time to take the temperature of his constituents.

Consumer advocacy group Health Access estimated that over the summer, 76,369 of Knight's constituents got insurance through the Affordable Care Act, either through Covered California or Medi-Cal. His district narrowly backed Clinton with 50.1% of the vote.

Knight, whom Democrats are targeting for the 2018 election, said he was reaching out to the medical community to find out how a change to Medicaid would affect people in his district. He likes that the proposed bill allows children to stay on their parents' insurance until they turn 26, but said there were three or four things in the bill, which he wouldn't specify, that concerned him.

"There's some good things in there. We're still reading through it and we've got, I guess, a few weeks to figure out what the district thinks," Knight said. "This is the first look at it and there could be some changes."

Knight seems to be doing what Republican political strategist Rob Stutzman said he'd advise members like him to do.

"It's a good time to keep your head down and try to figure out, on the left and the right, what reaction there might be to the bill," Stutzman said. "A lot of people are just waiting to see what this is branded as."

Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), David Valadao (R-Hanford), Doug LeMalfa (R-Richvale), Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) have all taken the wait-and-see approach, declining to say much beyond that they're still weighing the bill.

The bill has been approved by the necessary committees, but changes are still possible before a vote, which could happen as early as next week. Rohrabacher said he wants to see what the bill looks like when it comes to the House floor. He has 76,899 constituents who have gotten coverage through the Affordable Care Act, according to Health Access. His district backed Clinton over Trump by nearly 2 percentage points, and his seat is also in Democrats' sights.

"I'm going to wait and see what comes before me and I will try my best to back up the Republican leadership in coming up with what is a defensible alternative" to the Affordable Care Act, he said.

One outlier appears to be Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine), whose district voted for Clinton by more than 5 percentage points and where more than 100,000 people have coverage through the Affordable Care Act, according to Health Access. She's being targeted by Democrats in 2018 too, but she seems to support the new bill, saying in a statement it "offers real solutions that will allow Americans to have healthcare plans that work for them" and keeps Republicans' healthcare promises.

Walters joins Republicans like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who have been the most vocally supportive of the bill and represent some of the state's most reliably red districts.

"I promised the voters in my district that I would take action and work to repeal and replace Obamacare with patient-centered healthcare solutions that actually reduce costs and expand choices," Calvert said in a statement.

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Calvert has 78,757 constituents who received coverage through Obamacare, according to Health Access. But his district backed Trump with 53% of the vote.

House Republican leaders are twisting arms to hold their party's members together and get the bill through to the chamber, where they'll need a simple majority to pass it. Though opposition has been growing, Republicans hold a large enough majority in the House that the bill could pass even if a few uncomfortable California members decide to vote against it.

There's a bigger chance the bill will stall in the Senate, where several Republican senators have already said they are displeased with the bill, which is all it would take to stop it. California's Democratic senators, along with its large Democratic House delegation, quickly rejected the bill as a huge downgrade.

Some Democrats have hoped to work on improvements to Obamacare if Republicans can't agree on how to replace it.

"Unless you plan on staying healthy and wealthy and can guarantee that, I just don't think this is going to work for most people," Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) said. "I don't think it's even as good as we had before the ACA."

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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