Pressure Points — Inside The House Dems’ Health Care Persuasion Campaign

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Democratic leaders and President Obama have mounted a major persuasion campaign, trying to get the party on board with the all-speed-ahead push on health care reform legislation. They are offering wavering members – who voted “No” the first time around or are thinking to switch and oppose health care this time – in-person talks with the president and are walking members through how health care reform would help constituents in each lawmaker’s district.

Rep. Scott Murphy (D-NY) is one of the 37 House Democrats who voted against the health care legislation last fall in the House, and is a top target of House leaders who need to win over several Democrats like him if they want to pass the bill this week. Inundated with calls asking him to vote “Yes,” Murphy is carrying the Senate bill around with him and his staff is insisting to the thousands of callers to his office on both sides of the health care debate that he wants to read every word before making a decision.

“We have to just rip the band-aid off and have a vote — up or down; yes or no,” House Democrats were told in a memo Friday, written by leadership and obtained by TPMDC. The leadership team also has spent time with members’ staffs to help explain all of the benefits that would kick in quickly – especially reforms to the practice of insurance companies excluding customers on the basis of preexisting conditions.Rep. Dennis Kucinich – one of the few Democrats who opposed the bill last fall from the left – hopped a ride on Air Force One with Obama today as the president planned a town hall event in the progressive lawmaker’s district.

Kucinich (D-OH) laid out his requirements for switching his vote in an editorial this weekend – saying that Democrats would need to include a robust public option and a state waiver to allow legislatures to create a single-payer health care system if they chose. It’s unlikely both of those changes would be made to the bill, which has gotten more conservative over time.

At the event today, Obama called Kucinich “tireless on behalf of working people.” NBC’s Chuck Todd tweeted that an audience member at the rally yelled “Vote yes,” and Obama asked the person to repeat for Kucinich to hear.

Murphy spokesman Josh Schwerin told me in an interview today that his boss is undecided, and closely reading the Senate bill to see if it better curbs health care costs than he felt the House bill did last year. But he also needs to see the reconciliation package that House leaders haven’t yet revealed in its final form. “He’s looking at this as what would become law, and you have to look at the entire package,” Schwerin said.

Potential switchers are hearing from just about everyone – personal conversations with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and members of House leadership. Their offices are being flooded with interest group phone calls. Rep. John Boccieri (D-OH) is another lawmaker feeling the squeeze, and his office has been getting so many calls the Washington, D.C. line was busy for four solid hours today.

Murphy’s office posted an explainer on their Web site about the “high call volume,” asking for understanding if the phones continue to ring without an answer or have a busy signal.

Then there are the television ad wars, ramping up for the final push. Congressional aides told me their bosses are seeing television, radio and newspaper ads in their home districts on both the pro-reform and anti-reform sides. Email campaigns from MoveOn.org and Democracy for America have got these Democrats in their sights. The Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America is doing a phone banking campaign and thanking members who say they will vote for health care. But the target Democrats who are on the fence are feeling the squeeze.

An aide to one of the 37 Democrats who voted “No” told TPMDC today that members of the White House health care team have paid personal visits to members and regularly work the phones to answer questions and attempt to persuade the wavering members.

Democratic leadership aides have told me privately they think retiring Democrats Rep. Bart Gordon (TN) and John Tanner (TN) are their most likely switchers. The pro-life Democrats who only backed the House bill last fall because it contained tough anti-abortion language are another key group the House leadership team must keep in place. Rep. Bart Stupak at first said he had 12 members prepared to vote “No,” but has since told reporters he thinks Speaker Nancy Pelosi is peeling those votes away.

Leadership set up a Health Care Hotline and are being funneled releases detailing the facts about health care, and talking points to combat Republican complaints about the procedure.

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