No August Repeats: How The Dems Are Approaching Recess With HCR Victory Behind Them

March 29, 2010 5:08 a.m.
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Play offense and “don’t run away” from health care reform.

That’s the advice Democratic leadership is giving rank-and-file members as they fan out across the country to their home districts with a health care victory in their pocket. For all the celebrating, there are real concerns about the next two weeks of Congressional recess spiraling out of control.

Democrats tell us they are confident the rowdy town halls from August won’t be duplicated, and are peppering members with data and facts about the health care bill to make sure they are armed with information. Last summer, members were caught unprepared and were faced with angry voters, loud protests and televised meetings that portrayed them in many cases as fumbling and unsure of how to talk about a bill that didn’t actually exist yet.But the tables have turned, and they are heading home with a spring in their step. Democrats think the changing political landscape thanks to passage of the sweeping measure will help the majority party reclaim popularity and, they hope, the message.

After passing the final piece of health care reform Thursday night, members of the House adjourned and headed home. They aren’t scheduled to return until April 12. It’s a “critical time to go on offense,” the speaker’s office told members in a memo obtained by TPMDC.

“Members were eager to get out of here, go back to their districts and start talking about this thing,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s spokesman Doug Thornell told TPMDC in an interview Friday.

Leadership is telling members to reach out to local chapters of the hundreds of national organizations that endorsed the health care legislation to help organize events in town. Instead of just holding a town hall, members are advised to find constituents who would be helped — a child with preexisting conditions who can now get health insurance, or a small business that will benefit from new tax credits — and host events with them showcasing how the bill reforms the health care system.

Members were given several-inch thick binders filled with statistics for how many people in their districts would benefit from each specific provision in the health care bill. Capitol Hill aides admit that one reason things went south so quickly last summer is that members were not prepared. (The Senate is partially to blame for that, since there wasn’t actually a bill to campaign on yet. The House had finished its committee work but hadn’t rallied behind a final plan, either. A delay in the Senate Finance Committee had a lot to do with the uncertainty House members faced back home.)

“Convey the immediate benefits of health reform to your constituents,” leadership recommended. “Tell your constituents how all this was done in a fiscally responsible, open, and transparent way.”

The Senate side isn’t any different, according to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s spokesman Jim Manley. “We are telling them to talk about health care as much as possible,” Manley told TPMDC.

The Democrats have been given fact sheets galore and leadership gave them individualized breakdowns of how the reform bill would help their state or Congressional district.

A House leadership aide told me that members must figure out the items that are most important to their district — if voters are most concerned about the deficit, talk about that, but if they need to see small business tax breaks, highlight those. No matter what, members are advised to talk about the benefits that take effect right away to show action.

But one big unknown element for the coming weeks is whether members are going to be seeing more of the threats which popped up following the health care vote.

Sources told us privately that Democrats did a Web seminar on safety at town halls and that members are taking the threats seriously but keeping on schedule with plans to meet their constituents. Staff members are “taking precautions,” and venues for town halls that worked last summer might need to be shifted to safer spots, we were told. Members are advised to take their time choosing locations for events that are both safe and allow them to keep the situation in control.

A Democratic Congressional aide told TPMDC that many members believe the town halls will be calm compared with this summer, in part because so many special interest groups such as Conservatives for Patients Rights were attempting to kill the bill at the time. CPR sent people to the town halls, listing them across the country on its Web site. But so far, there is no similar list this time.

“There was substantial evidence back in August that a lot of the angry mobs were being stoked and organized by special interest groups to try to kill the legislation. Now that they’ve failed, it’ll be interesting to see if town halls reach the same level as August without the insurance companies astroturfing,” the aide said.

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