By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- "The war's on," says Rep. Baron P. Hill, and he's not talking about a conflict overseas, but a battle over health care in his own back yard, where thousands of people are trying to tell him what to do, some not so nicely.
Hill is a leader of the Blue Dogs, the caucus of 51 conservative Democrats whose hard-bargaining support is critical to President Obama's bid to overhaul the health system. He came home on recess to find himself a target of groups that want to steer the August conversation and the autumn vote.
These weeks are considered crucial, with Obama traveling the country and interest groups, as varied as the AARP and the insurance industry, spending millions on advertising. Hill, a blunt and pragmatic politician known for moving cautiously, helped postpone a final House vote to give lawmakers time to assess attitudes at home.
Happy to oblige, the Republican National Committee is running a radio ad saying he "folded like a lawn chair" under White House pressure. Conservative opponents are accusing him of ducking honest debate. Obama supporters by the dozen are using tactics more typical of a political campaign to keep him on board.
So many people are calling and writing Hill that the telephone lines in his Bloomington office are often jammed. The phone traffic to his Capitol Hill office is so heavy that one staffer sends an e-mail when he needs to reach colleagues there. On Wednesday, Hill's office mailed 8,400 responses to voters.
One thing Hill is not doing is holding public town-hall meetings like those at which opponents have heckled members of Congress. He held at least six unannounced meetings with constituents last week and is mulling a day-long series of one-on-one meetings or a telephone conference call.
"I'm trying to control the event," Hill said, shortly before an informal discussion with a dozen business people at the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce. "What I don't want to do is create an opportunity for the people who are political terrorists to blow up the meeting and not try to answer thoughtful questions."
That decision irritates some of Hill's constituents, who have been calling his office to demand time. They are furious that he voted July 31 in the House Energy and Commerce Committee for a hefty bill that would include a government-run insurance option.
"He needs to answer the people. He voted yes. Why? Tell us why, Baron. I'm not going to hang you in effigy," said Salem pediatrician Christy Lane. She failed several times to reach Hill's Washington staff, so she instead called the nearby Jeffersonville office.
After a contentious first week of the House recess, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Sunday defended the opponents of reform who have disrupted Democrats' town hall meetings. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, he said Democratic criticism of the disruptions "may indicate some weakness in their position on the merits."
Taking another view, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said the angry shouting that had dominated some public meetings "isn't the democratic process" and "isn't right." He told CNN, "You know, we need to respect free speech, but we need to respect one another's right to free speech, too."
The battle of Baron Hill is developing as Obama and national groups are mustering foot soldiers and advertising dollars. Advocates have bought $500,000 of television time in the Evansville, Ind., and Louisville, Ky., markets, with more than half coming from the drug industry and its allies, said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Allison Luthe, the Indiana coordinator for Health Care for America Now, which supports the Obama plan, said pro-reform labor unions have assigned 22 organizers to the state, including two who are hiring canvassers. In an e-mail to supporters last week, Obama declared that "this is the moment our movement was built for."
Obama said he won the presidency "on the phone lines, at the softball games and the town meetings." He said that's "exactly" where the health-care fight will be won or lost, and he asked his backers to take at least one political action in August.
On a warm evening in New Albany, a gritty Ohio River town in far southern Indiana, 25 volunteers showed up at the Floyd County Democratic Party headquarters. They picked up packets with maps and literature and set out to persuade voters to telephone Hill and centrist Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.).
Presbyterian Church researcher Perry Chang and social worker Bruce Behney -- both from across the river in Kentucky -- teamed up. When answering the door, more people than not said the country needs health-care reform and agreed to listen to the pitch.
Susan Wells, a Red Cross technician, likes her current insurance coverage, but said her benefits are due to be cut. Unemployed friends and relatives have no insurance, she said, yet she worries about the Obama plan, calling her anxiety "fear of the unknown."
"It's like one of those things where you'd like to try it before you buy it," Wells said. "But once we do it, there's no going back."
As he walked to the next house, Chang said he felt more confident two weeks ago in urging people to support Obama, before he noticed the president's poll numbers dropping. But he is pressing ahead, hopeful that his presence helps fence-sitters see that "real people care about this."
College student Abby Gahan has been working every day since June 6, apart from an occasional Sunday, to organize the New Albany effort. One of nine summer volunteers in Indiana for the Democratic National Committee's Organizing for America operation, Gahan oversees four nights a week of activity.
"We like the citizen-to-citizen contact better, rather than holding up a sign. We hope that of every 15 people whose doors we knock, three people will say, 'Hey, put us on the list,' " Gahan said. On this night, volunteers added to their talking points a request that supporters call Hill's office to thank him for his July 31 vote.
"It's important that he knows we appreciate what he's done," Gahan said.
Hill predicts "enormous changes" in the House bill before any measure becomes law, but he said he is committed to the outlines of Obama's proposal, including a public option. Asked whether the Organizing for America effort will help him build support, he said, "That's the $10,000 question. I'll know at the end of the month."
Before then, Hill knows he will hear from critics in a politically divided district where he has won five times and lost once. Opponents of the Obama plan, who predict that costs would rise and government would become too deeply involved in medical decisions, are using more informal networks.
Erin Houchin, the Republican Party chairwoman in Hill's district, sends an e-mail at least every second day to about 150 people. In the two days before Hill's vote, she figures she generated more than 50 calls to his office, and is now pushing him to hold a public forum.
"It's never been this easy to make these calls," Houchin said. "People are really fired up."
Lane, the pediatrician, did not vote for Hill last time, but she said health care is not a partisan issue. Certain the public option would overwhelm the government and leave patients worse off, she persuaded fellow doctors to call or write Hill. She also said, "I Facebook a lot."
"I'll post, 'Call your congressman, call your senator. They're the ones who are going to draft this bill,' " said Lane, who contends Hill violated a pledge when he supported the Energy and Commerce Committee bill, which passed on a 31 to 28 vote.
"They say I was against the Obama plan but voted for it? Yeah, after changes were made I did, of course," Hill said in an interview. "What they're not telling you is that I was at the table, changing the bill to make it better, more moderate, more acceptable."
At a meeting he convened at the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, Hill defended his vote while asserting that the health-care overhaul "is still a work in progress."
"I told the president this, personally: 'You're moving too fast on this. You've got to give people a chance to catch up,' " Hill said, moving on to detail his reasons for supporting the measure. After an hour-long discussion that suggested the jury is still out, he departed for his next unannounced meeting.
"I'll know at the end of the month," he said, "where this thing is in my district."