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« Senior Concern: Health Reform And The Midterms | Blog Home Page | Palin Rallies The Right »

Health Care Fight Returns To Town Halls

The August 2009 recess nearly proved fatal to Democrats' hopes of passing health care reform. The simmering angst of citizens at town hall meetings, in some cases shown live on cable news, caught many off guard and extended a process the majority party had initially hoped to complete by Labor Day.

With that legislation now finally passed, both parties' leadership see the upcoming Easter recess as a critical opportunity to change the dynamic. For Republicans, it's a chance to regain the upper hand and keep the pressure on Democrats when they still appear vulnerable. For Democrats, the recess represents what some in the party see as their best chance yet to reframe the debate by highlighting a major accomplishment.

"I think everyone recognizes that you can't just try to sweep it under the rug and hope that the other side won't come after you on it," a Democratic leadership aide tells RCP. "Everyone understands the importance of going out there and going on the offense ... and not letting the other side get an advantage in terms of defining the bill again."

Democrats, particularly on the House side, have been encouraged by leadership to use the time in their districts focusing on the more popular components of the reform law. The forum is up to the member, however, and it's unclear yet how willing Democrats are to hold town hall meetings considering the August experience. RCP contacted the offices of more than two dozen Democratic House and Senate Democrats, most of whom represented swing votes in either chamber. Most were unwilling to disclose much about a member's specific plans for the coming weeks.

If not town hall meetings, a packet distributed to the caucus Wednesday suggests members hold tele-town halls, have press events with groups that backed the law, meet with newspaper editorial boards, or to greet constituents in a roundtable or small group setting.

Republicans, meanwhile, have offered similar advice for a health care offensive.

"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. There is simply too much at stake to let up the pressure now," Mike Pence writes in a "recess kit" distributed Thursday.

The economy won't be forgotten as well, by either side.

"Our Members will be talking about the number one issue on the minds of the American people: jobs, and the terrible impact that this job-killing health care bill will have," said Michael Steel, aide to Minority Leader John Boehner. The Democratic recess packet urges members to link the health reform effort with steps taken to address the economic downturn. "Tell your constituents how all this was done in a fiscally responsible, open, and transparent way," the document says.

Looming over the recess, though, is concern that the anger seen since the town halls of last August has taken a more aggressive, even violent turn. One staffer for a Democrat who was among those in Sarah Palin's "crosshairs" said that law enforcement was actively discouraging early advisories of the Congressman's schedule because of death threats.

"Unfortunately what we've seen is an ugly scene taking place," a Democratic strategist said. "Our members are understandably concerned for their safety."

But others appear to have signed on to the plan for aggressive outreach. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH), for instance, has four town hall meetings planned specifically about health care.

For Democrats who voted no, however, the recess could be trickier. Rather than selling the health care legislation, the leadership has suggested they use the recess to patch things up with the Democratic Party's traditional base groups.

"It's important that they get out ahead of that and make sure that their friends, while they may disagree with their vote, understand it," the leadership aide said.