5 Things to Watch During Recess

By Glenn Thrush
|  Monday, Aug 3, 2009  |  Updated 1:45 PM EDT
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Obama's Littlest Constituents

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), seen here with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NY), is bracing for what she calls “the fight of our lives.”

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House Minority Leader John Boehner has predicted a “very, very hot summer.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is bracing for what she calls “the fight of our lives.”

Sleepy, sweltering August, typically a month for congressional beach getaways and temperature-taking back in the district, is shaping up to be the critical month for health care reform, with major battles brewing in the Capitol and on the streets in front of members’ hometown offices.

If ever there was a time for a curtain raiser on an intermission, this is it. So here are five things to watch over the most consequential August recess in recent history:

1. Your move, Karen Ignagni

When your product is hard to sell — and health care reform has proven to be the Edsel in the White House showroom — it’s not a bad idea to single out a bad guy, and fast.

Pelosi did so last week with unusual bluntness, declaring outright war on the health insurance industry as her caucus splintered over the controversial public option. The speaker called insurers “villains” and charged them with “immoral” billing and coverage practices.

The question now: Will the insurance industry, which has tried to keep a low profile while maintaining the proverbial seat at the table, commence a big, mean anti-reform counterattack — à la 1994’s “Harry and Louise” ads?

Karen Ignagni, the powerful president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s main trade group, has high-roaded it so far, calling out Pelosi for her “divisive” rhetoric but reaffirming that “health plans remain committed to working constructively in support of bipartisan health care reform.”

But GOP aides on the Hill and Republicans on K Street are getting antsy, and they’re urging Ignagni, a former union official who has visited the White House at least four times since March, to get tougher.

“Hopefully, these guys will realize their approach hasn’t been working and will get into the game,” said a senior Republican aide on the Hill. “I mean, it would be asinine not to weigh in after what Pelosi said.”

A GOP pollster and strategist adds: “We’ve been trying to get the insurance guys more engaged. ... There’s increased pressure from the membership to take off the gloves — and that’s going to be the big topic over the next week.”

It’s not like the industry has been inert. But the insurers have played the inside game, spending millions on an army of lobbyists and lavishing campaign contributions on Democrats and Republicans to kill the public option. Health insurers spent $133 million in the second quarter alone, more than a million bucks a day.

And over the weekend, the association, which represents 1,300 insurers and HMOs across the country, told POLITICO’s Mike Allen that it was stepping up its activity, advising members to confront representatives critical of the industry at August town hall meetings.

One prediction from insiders: Even if Ignagni holds her fire, watch for increased ad spending from the Chamber of Commerce and the anti-tax Club for Growth. 

2. Obama’s numbers

If there’s one metric that may determine the outcome of the whole fight, it’s President Barack Obama’s once stratospheric approval rating, which has been falling along with the popularity of the health care plan.

The president’s popularity, while still in the relatively robust 53 to 55 percent range, is ebbing, and that’s a big problem for Democrats trying to sell anything anywhere this summer.

The downdraft is even being felt in governors’ races, including Virginia’s, where Republican Bob McDonnell put Democrat Creigh Deeds on the defensive in last week’s debate by forcing him to explain his support for Obama’s stimulus, bailouts and health care plans.

Organizing for America, Obama’s grass-roots network tucked inside the Democratic National Committee, still commands a vast e-linked army of Obama supporters to be mobilized for the health care fight.

But OFA’s big stick — which includes running ads in some Democrats’ districts — becomes less intimidating with each point shaved from the president’s popularity. And the GOP is becoming bolder in its attacks on the White House.

3. The message war

The Republicans have a relatively easy task in fighting health care reform — paint a vision of a post-reform health care apocalypse, rationed services and power-mad government bureaucrats taking away individual choice and even determining the quality of end-of-life care for seniors.

The two main Democratic points — that reforms will save money and insure the 47 million uninsured — haven’t taken hold, with only 42 percent of Americans now saying Obama’s blueprint for reform is a bad idea.

The White House’s cost-cutting arguments have suffered staggering setbacks at the hand of the Congressional Budget Office, which estimated that the plans emerging from key committees would result in a fraction of their estimated savings.

And for all their talk about avoiding the Clintons’ mistakes in 1993-94, the Obama White House finds itself with precisely the same dilemma when it comes to messaging: how to sell a plan whose details are largely undetermined.

While the Democrats have wallowed in the theoretical, the Republican message has been bracingly concrete — and scary.

“It’s as if every single American gets up in the morning, walks over to the window, and tosses two dollars out into the wind, every day for the next 10 years,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) claimed during a floor speech two weeks ago.

4. Who will come to the tea parties?

Anti-reform protesters, many of them veterans from the winter and spring tea party protests, are promising to swamp Democrats’ districts with a wave of anti-reform protest over the recess.

The threat is real, and Democrats, especially those in battleground districts, are more than a little rattled. Just as the “birthers” threaten to cause problems for GOP members over the break, conservative protesters have proven skilled in sabotaging their targets by crashing town halls and other public events, drowning out Democratic messages.

The net result is a chill: Democrats are holding smaller events with handpicked crowds.

But there’s a potential downside for Republicans, too.

Some of the protesters have crossed the line from dissent into abusiveness, and some Republican strategists, while excited by the prospects of an insurgency over the recess, have been alarmed by a smattering of ugly recent incidents.

The worst: One protester hung an effigy of Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. (D-Md.) outside his Eastern Shore district office last week.

“We don’t condone violence in any way,” wrote the editor of operationembarrass-yourcongressman.com, a site that posts members’ public events and suggests a slate of anti-health care reform queries for protesters.

“Don’t harass, intimidate, or otherwise do anything threatening towards anyone! ... Simply use your freedom of speech in public forums to accomplish our mission.”

5. Baucus in a box

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is growing increasingly impatient with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), reportedly telling him to speed up the pace of the reform plan.

Baucus, intent on winning over three committee Republicans — who are, in turn, intent on killing the public option — has scrapped his three-day annual fundraiser back in Montana to continue working through the break.

He’s also given himself a Sept. 15 deadline — to assuage a rising revolt from Democratic liberals, who are now talking openly about staging secret-ballot committee elections every two years to keep senators like Baucus from accruing too much influence.

Still, Baucus seems boxed in by the committee Republicans, whom Democrats accuse of stalling, and pro-Obama liberals, who don’t have the 60 votes to pass a plan.

One solution that’s getting a second look is reconciliation — the widely disdained process by which the Senate passes budget-related legislation through a simple majority vote.

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