Busy Signal Or Breakthrough? Congressional Switchboards Flooded With Health Care Call Deluge

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Interns are scrambling to get the talking points right as the phones ring off the hook. Press secretaries’ BlackBerries are running out of batteries from downloading hundreds of emails along the lines of, “Will your boss switch his vote?” Constituents asking about taxes aren’t able to get through the clogged switchboards.

In what seems to be the final (really!) push on health care reform on Capitol Hill, offices have been deluged with phone calls from across the country. They are pro-reform, anti-reform, blasting reconciliation or begging for an up-or-down vote – engaged voters who are attempting to influence the course of what will be a razor-close vote this weekend.

No one has been more targeted than the 37 House Democrats who voted “No” the first time around on health care, the majority of which did so under the mantle of fiscal responsibility. They are prime gets for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House, who need to peel off a few to make up for the lost votes due to retirements and a change in the abortion provisions in the legislation.At one point this week, the calls shut down the Congressional switchboard. Democrats would not release a tally of their organized effort but said the calls seems to surpass the record number set last fall.

Rep. John Boccieri (D-OH) is still deciding if he’ll switch his vote and support the final health care bill. And without a clear answer, activists from across the country are trying to register their say.

On Monday Boccieri’s office received 1,500 calls, nearly all of them about health care and substantially higher in volume than a normal day, according to Jessica Kershaw. A new staffer starting in the Washington office Monday logged 400 of those calls on her own, doing nothing but answering the phone. In addition, aides had 1,200 e-mails in their system sent over the weekend – more than twice the normal volume.

Of the 1,500 calls, 985 were from people calling from outside of the district about health care. The office said many of them were run through an autodial system by various groups. When a real person of the eight answering phones isn’t available, the calls kick into a general voicemail box. When that’s full, staffers individual voicemails fill up.

The calls are about evenly split on the pro-health care and anti-health care, though Boccieri would prefer to hear thoughts on health care coming from within his district, Kershaw said.

Kershaw said the calls put the office at a standstill when trying to respond to constituent needs, adding: “If we can’t get to those people it not only puts them at risk, it means we’re not doing our job.”

We tried calling about a dozen other Democrats who voted against health care in the last 24 hours, getting a busy signal or full voicemail every time.

TPM reader DP tells us he had a hard time getting his pro-health care message through to Rep. Jason Altmire’s office as weary aides input his vote wrong into their system.

After trying the Washington office and being greeted auto-recordings warning of full voicemail boxes, DP called one district office to say, “I’m calling the Congressman to urge him to SUPPORT the bill.” The aide on the phone asked for his name and ZIP code and said, “And you want him to vote NO?” Finally he got through to register his support for health care.

We documented similar problems last fall when supporters and opponents were phoning Senators.

A Democratic source told me today that members are reporting the majority of the “No” votes are coming from outside of the district.

The Democrats send over this highlight reel of news reports showing the DNC’s Organizing for America grassroots efforts on health care:

Follow every development this week on health care on our Countdown to Reform wire.

Late Update: According to The Hill, the office of the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) told Congressional offices the system is “nearing capacity” and “It got critical enough whereby we notified all systems administrators throughout the House that the phone systems are overloading.”

Ed. note: This post has been edited from the original.

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