Did Congressman Jeff Denham really call the GOP health bill ‘bipartisan’ ?

In this 2013 photo, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the House Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
In this 2013 photo, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the House Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump congratulated House Republicans for passing a replacement for Obamacare. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump congratulated House Republicans for passing a replacement for Obamacare. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Congressman Jeff Denham’s use of the word "bipartisan" in response to a question about the recent GOP health bill sparked criticism this week from several news and political outlets.

Headlines claimed the Central Valley Republican had tried to re-write history about the very partisan nature of the vote on the legislation.

"Jeff Denham Lies to Constituents About Republican Repeal & Rip-off Bill," read the headline of a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee press release on May 9, 2017.

"House Republican Absurdly Claims Trumpcare Bill That No Democrat Voted For Is Bipartisan," was the headline the same day in an article by PoliticusUSA.com, which describes itself as a corporate-free news site.

Denham used the term "bipartisan" in a different context during a contentious public meeting in Riverbank on May 9, 2017. His district includes Stanislaus County and is centered in Modesto.

The congressman voted for the health bill, which narrowly passed the House this month with all Democrats voting ‘No.’ All of California’s Republican members of Congress supported the bill.

In this case, we decided not to rate any claims on our Truth-O-Meter, but to instead lay out the facts about what Denham really said at his public meeting and to clarify what appear to be misleading statements on both sides of this story.

Our research

The Modesto Bee videotaped Denham’s remarks on May 9 during an event billed as "coffee and casual conversation." They are available at about the 29:00 minute mark in this video

Many of the attendees criticized Denham over his vote and peppered him with questions about it.

Here’s the exchange in which the congressman uses the term "bipartisan."  

Attendee: Can I just clarify, you read the entire bill before you voted on it?

Denham: Yes

Attendee: You did?

Denham: Yep

Attendee: You’re the one congressman that we know of who read the entire bill, before…

Denham: Oh, I don’t know that that’s true. It was read in committee, it was read a couple of times…

Attendee: Really?!

Denham: Yeah. Bipartisan, both parties, working together, yes.

The congressman’s spokeswoman told us in an email that Denham "was referring to the process, in which both parties were involved, as well as refuting the idea that he was the only member of congress that read the bill."

Experts weigh in

We didn’t hear Denham describe the content of the bill or the final vote as bipartisan. Still, we asked several experts to weigh in on whether his claim about cooperation between the parties was accurate.

Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political science professor, reviewed the exchange and had this to say:

"It sounds like in this town hall what (Denham) is talking about is the very bare bones of the process of having it read in committee and having people look at it and scrutinize it. … Certain aspects of the process certainly were bipartisan," Kousser said.

Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College agreed "in the very broadest terms, yes, the process of the bill was bipartisan," including the reading of the bill.

"But when it gets to the substance of the legislation and the backroom drafting of it, that’s where the term bipartisan is less applicable," Pitney added. "The informal negotiations that produced the legislation and the subsequent amendments were entirely partisan. Democrats were not part of that process."

It’s clear the headlines by the DCCC and PoliticusUSA.com distorted the truth about what Denham said. Notably, a Politico article got the headline right when it said "GOP Rep. Denham claims health care bill process was ‘bipartisan.’"

Meanwhile, the congressman’s use of the word bipartisan appears correct in only the most limited sense. It was a poor choice of words given how little cooperation there was over the healthcare bill. Both sides in this story are playing fast and loose with the truth.