Activists, lobbyists pressing campaigns on health care bill

March 05, 2010|By Kim Geiger and Tom Hamburger | Tribune newspapers

As President Barack Obama began pushing for a prompt vote on his health initiative, lobbyists and activist groups launched advertising and grass-roots campaigns to press the two dozen members of Congress who ultimately could cast the swing votes on the controversial issue.

At the headquarters of Americans for Tax Reform, 200 conservative activists received briefings on the message that will be hammered home in the districts of key House Democrats: "This is not about a fight inside Washington," said Grover Norquist, who chaired the meeting. "This is a fight between those ruling Washington and the rest of the country.

"We want to be sure that any member who votes in contempt of their constituents knows they will lose the next election," Norquist said.

Leaders of conservative groups pledged to apply pressure through ads, automated phone calls and door-to-door visits.

The White House also stepped up efforts to court swing votes among Democrats in the House. But in the early going, the enthusiasm and energy appeared to be with the conservatives.

The National Republican Campaign Committee detailed its plan to press 10 Democrats who voted "no" in the past not to swing in support of the health care bill, in addition to about two dozen who voted "yes" but came from districts that are solidly Republican.

The GOP committee plans calls to voters in 38 districts, warning of Democrats' plans to "ram their dangerous, out-of-control health care spending bill through Congress."

Rep. Frank Kratovil, an Eastern Shore Democrat, was the only Maryland congressman on the Republican target list.

Republicans have seized on news reports that Kratovil might flip-flop on the issue to batter him with a fresh wave of attacks.

Even though Kratovil has been reported to be among a small group of House Democrats who might change his position, he repeated this week that he intends to vote against the Democratic legislation that is expected to come before the House this month.

The freshman congressman, a target for Republicans since the day he took office last year, is among the most vulnerable House Democrats in the country in 2010 because he won by a razor-thin margin in a largely Republican district in 2008.

Republicans plan to target 60 House members, some of whom were courted by Obama during White House meetings Wednesday and Thursday.

Obama stepped up his efforts to rally House Democrats behind the bill, sitting down with about 20 lawmakers in two meetings Thursday afternoon, one with leaders of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and one with leaders of the minority and Progressive caucuses.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the administration believes the House will approve the Senate health care bill by March 18, when Obama is scheduled to leave on an overseas trip.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, expressed optimism that she would find the votes needed to pass the bill. But her options narrowed Thursday, as Kratovil and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a South Dakota Democrat, moved more firmly into the "no" camp.

Pelosi will now have to find 217 votes for the health legislation, as Rep. Nathan Deal, a Georgia Republican who had planned to resign to run for governor, announced that he would stay long enough to vote on the health bill. His resignation, coupled with three Democratic vacancies, would have lowered the threshold for passing a health care bill to 216.

White House allies vowed to back up the president's offensive with advertising and local activities. AFL-CIO executives were contemplating their next move. So far, the only confirmed activity is a demonstration Tuesday at a Washington meeting of health insurance executives.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka is expected to attend the events, which is to include "citizens arrests" of insurance officials.

Left-leaning MoveOn.org issued an e-mail plea Thursday to raise $200,000 "to fight back and pass health care reform."

Within three hours, the group had raised almost $250,000, which it will spend on advertising, rallies and phone calls, said communications director Ilyse Hogue.

Organizing for America, Obama's 2008 campaign organization that has become an arm of the Democratic Party, has used its vast e-mail database to urge supporters to pledge volunteer campaign hours for members who vote in favor of the bill, and to facilitate call-ins to radio talk shows.

The group bought a full-page ad in USA Today and instructed supporters to deliver copies of the ad to members as a thank-you gesture for supporting the bill.

Still, the efforts on the left did not appear to match the energy of those on the right.

The National Republican Campaign Committee project includes robo-calls, paid advertising, and plans to activate its networks of physicians and small-business owners to campaign in their communities against the bill.

"This will be an aggressive, multi-front communications operation," said RNCC spokesman Paul Lindsay.

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