Lawmakers leave for recess with plans to discuss health care back home

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; 12:36 PM

Congressional Democrats will spend a two-week recess that starts Monday promoting the health-care law they just passed to voters back home in their districts in a bid to change perceptions of the reform effort now that is no longer stuck in protracted negotiations on Capitol Hill.

The recess, on the heels of President Obama's Thursday launch of his road show to promote the law, comes as both parties are expressing confidence that they can win the public debate on health care over the next several months.

Top Democratic leaders have encouraged members to hold events with constituents who will benefit this year from the legislation, such as roundtables with small-business owners who would get tax credits or meetings with seniors, who will soon be eligible for a $250 rebate check for prescription drug coverage. They have urged members to tailor messages to their districts, suggesting that those in districts that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) won in the 2008 presidential race highlight Congressional Budget Office data predicting the law will reduces the deficit. In a meeting with House Democratic aides Thursday, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer also emphasized promoting the immediate benefits to Americans.

Top party officials have also told lawmakers, particularly those from swing states or districts who backed the bill, that they can't avoid the vote and must address it before conservative opponents of the law can define it negatively.

"You don't run away from this," said one top party aide who has advised lawmakers and their staffs in the House about the recess strategy. "We have told them: 'You need to go talk about it. You need to go out there and go on the offensive on it. You will not be able to turn public opinion immediately, but the key is your constituents understand your rationale for supporting it.'"

Republicans are also encouraging members to highlight health care over the break. The packet of data and talking points the House GOP prepared for its members for the recess included a list of figures Republicans plan to use to attack the bill, such as 16,500 -- the number of additional auditors and other employees Republicans have said the IRS may need to implement the law, a number the agency has not verified and Democrats sharply dispute -- and $1.55 trillion, this year's projected federal budget deficit.

"Use every opportunity to visit with area business leaders, senior living centers, medical professionals, and local press to carry our message to every corner of the country," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the number three leader in the House GOP wrote in a memo to members. "There is simply too much at stake to let up the pressure."

This effort from both parties, of course, is not new. House leaders sent Democrats home for August's recess with a pocket card that listed the reforms in what was then the House version of the legislation, only to find members attending unruly town halls flooded with conservative opponents of the bill. Republican lawmakers said they saw some of their biggest crowds ever last summer, full of people cheering on their opposition to the legislation.

Democrats say they hope the spring's events will be different, as the bill has passed and some of the most persistent falsehoods about it, such as that it included "death panels," have been debunked. And although members are not being discouraged from holding town halls, strategists have noted that smaller gatherings with specific groups could reduce the number of events dominated by conservatives yelling at lawmakers.

"Now that the smoke is clearing, they can see what's in there," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "There is an opportunity to talk about what's in the bill."

At the same time, both parties are aware that the economy, not health care, might decide November's elections. Democrats are encouraging members to hold events highlighting projects created from stimulus funds, as well. And, in a memo to members for recess, House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio.) was even more direct on this point.

"Where Are the Jobs?" the subject line of the memo reads, repeating a phrase Boehner has invoked constantly over the past year to attack Democrats. "Not in President Obama's Health Care Law."

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