Health-Care Activists Are Targeting Democrats Who Are Usually Allies

Among the Democratic senators targeted by such liberal groups as are, from left, Ben Nelson (Neb.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.).
Among the Democratic senators targeted by such liberal groups as are, from left, Ben Nelson (Neb.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.). (Melina Mara - Twp)
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By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009

In the high-stakes battle over health care, a growing cadre of liberal activists is aiming its sharpest firepower against Democratic senators who they accuse of being insufficiently committed to the cause.

The attacks -- ranging from tart news releases to full-fledged advertising campaigns -- have elicited rebuttals from lawmakers and sparked a debate inside the party over the best strategy for achieving President Obama's top priority of a comprehensive health-system overhaul.

The rising tensions between Democratic legislators and constituencies that would typically be their natural allies underscore the high hurdles for Obama as he tries to hold together a diverse, fragile coalition. Activists say they are simply pressing for quick delivery of "true health reform," but the intraparty rift runs the risk of alienating centrist Democrats who will be needed to pass a bill.

In recent days -- and during this week's congressional recess -- left-leaning bloggers and grass-roots organizations such as, Health Care for America Now and the Service Employees International Union have singled out Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) for the criticism more often reserved for opposition party members.

"Will Mary Landrieu sell out Louisiana for $1.6 million?" says one Internet ad that suggests a link between contributions she has received from the medical industry and her reluctance to back the creation of a government-sponsored insurance option.

In many instances, the ad buys are relatively small. But Obama demonstrated the political power of Internet-based grass-roots activity in the presidential campaign. Still, as health care moves from electoral rallying cry to the tedious work of legislating, Obama finds himself caught between his campaign foot soldiers and the elected politicians who will vote.

One of his most stalwart supporters, for instance, says time is running out on efforts by the president and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to forge a bipartisan compromise on legislation affecting more than one-fifth of the economy.

"We are getting to the point if people aren't going to respond to the patience and openness of Senator Baucus, we should begin to make a different plan," said Andrew Stern, president of the 2 million-member SEIU.

Stern said his organization issued a release chastising Feinstein last week, because she should "put her foot on the gas, not the brake" on health reform.

"The gas pedal to go where?" Feinstein replied, explaining she has questions about how a broad expansion of health coverage will be paid for.

"I do not think this is helpful. It doesn't move me one whit," she said. "They are spending a lot of money on something that is not productive."

Much of the sparring centers around whether to create a government-managed health insurance program that would compete with private insurers. Obama supports the concept, dubbed the "public option," but he has been vague on details. Left-of-center activists want a powerful entity with the ability to set prices for doctors and hospitals.

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