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GOP hopes town halls take health care off table
"If health care doesn't get done by Easter," says Republican Rep. John Shadegg, "then we need to make Easter look like last August."
It's been more than seven months since Congress' August recess turned into a monthlong town meeting for Americans to voice their strong disapproval of Obamacare. Ever since then, with the health care bill still unpassed, Democratic leaders have been wary of letting members head home for too long.
But beginning March 26, lawmakers will return to their districts and states for an Easter break that will last more than two weeks. Unlike the Christmas/New Year recess, when voters were occupied with the holidays and their own lives, there is renewed intensity over health care, as the president and Democrats make a "final push" to pass their bill. With Republicans planning to hold lots of town halls, that means it's possible Easter could become August all over again.
"There's frustration out there," says Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who serves as the House GOP's chief deputy whip and is encouraging members to meet with voters as often as possible. "The frustration is, 'Here we've sent a message [on health care], but the administration is still trying to do it.' People are opposed to this bill. They've seen the bill, they've heard the bill, they understand the bill, and they don't like it. And they don't understand why the president is continuing to push it when the country has said they dislike it."
Easter can't be exactly like August. Back then, people were just learning what was in the Democrats' health care proposals, and they couldn't believe what they saw. Now, that newness is gone. Also, this is an election year, and House rules mandate a 90-day "blackout period" before a primary, which means members who have primaries coming up in the next three months cannot send out mass mailings and do other campaign-like activities. They can still hold town halls, but the rules make it a little harder to notify the public of them.
Still, GOP strategists believe the town halls can be a twofer for Republican lawmakers. First, the meetings will showcase the public's continuing opposition to Obamacare, and second, they will highlight the voters' desire for Washington to work on the economy, not remake the health care system.
"I did a jobs fair in Bakersfield on Monday and had 2,000 people come," McCarthy says by phone from California. "One of the things they said to me is, 'Why is the president having a health care summit when he should be having a jobs summit?' " In their own way, voters are trying to force President Obama and the Democratic leadership to execute their long-advertised "pivot" from health care to jobs.
The problem is, health care is still on the table. So one thing you're sure to hear at the town halls is this: "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke those words during an appearance before the National Association of Counties this week, and Republicans plan to throw them back at her again and again in coming weeks.
"We want to go out and listen and talk about what's proposed," McCarthy says, "and she wants us to pass it, that way people can know what's in it, because it could never pass if people knew what was in it."
GOP lawmakers will also be talking about the "Slaughter Solution," a plan floated by Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, chairwoman of the House Rules Committee. It's an outrageous parliamentary maneuver in which House Democrats, who are terrified of voting for the deal-laden Senate health care bill, would essentially assume passage of that bill for purposes of amending it without voting on the bill itself. Republicans have long made hay out of Democratic corner-cutting on health care, and there will be more during the Easter break.
As the recess approaches, the polls on health care have been tightening a bit. The most recent Real Clear Politics average of surveys shows the public opposes the Democratic bill by 49 percent to 41 percent. That eight-point margin is a little smaller than the 10- and 12-point margins we've seen in the past. After an Obama public relations blitz, Republicans want to use the Easter break to remind Americans of what they don't like about the plan. And if they're successful, it'll be August all over again.
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