Pressure mounts for/against healthcare bill

As President Obama pushes for a prompt up or down vote on his health initiative, lobbyists and activist groups on both sides of the issue have launched grass-roots and high-dollar advertising campaigns on the roughly two dozen members of Congress who may be the final swing votes on the controversial issue.

At the headquarters of Americans for Tax Reform, 200 conservative activists received briefings on the message that will be carried to the home districts of key House Democrats.

“This is not about a fight inside Washington,” said Grover Norquist, head of the organization. “This is a fight between those ruling Washington and the rest of the country.”

“We want to be sure that any member who votes in contempt of their constituents knows they will lose the next election,” Norquist said.

The White House also stepped up efforts to court swing votes among Democrats in the House. But in the early going, the enthusiasm and energy appeared to reside with the conservatives.

The National Republican Congressional Committee detailed its plan to press 10 Democrats who voted no in the past not to switch, in addition to 25 or so who voted yes but came from districts that are leaning Republican.

The committee plans automated robo-calls to voters in 38 districts warning of Democrats’ plans to “ram their dangerous, out-of-control healthcare spending bill through Congress.”

All told, the Republicans plan to target 60 House members, some of whom were courted personally by the president at White House meetings Wednesday and Thursday.

Obama stepped up his efforts to rally House Democrats behind the bill, sitting down with some 20 lawmakers in two meetings Thursday afternoon -- one with leaders of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and the other with leaders of the minority and progressive caucuses.

Adding to the pressure, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the administration believes the House will approve the Senate healthcare bill by March 18, when Obama is scheduled to leave on an overseas trip.

Democratic House leaders had pressed the White House to ensure that there would be no repeat of what happened during the August congressional recess, when conservative voices filled the airwaves and town halls with arguments opposing the Democrats’ healthcare agenda.

“It was a one-sided perspective,” said a senior Democratic leadership aide. “Many conservative groups were able to mobilize their supporters out there better than we were able to mobilize others.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) expressed optimism that she would find the necessary votes. But her options narrowed Thursday, as two conservative Democrats moved firmly into the “no” camp.

Reps. Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota voted against the healthcare bill last year, but some Democrats had hoped at least one of them might be persuaded to switch.

Pelosi also will have to find 217 votes, because Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), who had planned to resign to run for governor, announced he would stay long enough to vote against the bill. His resignation, coupled with three Democratic vacancies, would have lowered the threshold for passing a healthcare bill to 216 votes.

White House allies vowed to back up the president’s offensive with advertising and local activities.

AFL-CIO executives, including President Rich Trumka, plan to attend a demonstration Tuesday at a Washington meeting of health insurance executives. The protest is to include “citizens arrests” of some insurance officials.

Left-leaning issued an e-mail plea to raise $200,000 Thursday afternoon “to fight back and pass healthcare reform.” Within three hours, the group had raised almost $250,000, which it will spend on advertising, rallies and phone calls, said communications director Ilyse Hogue.

Organizing for America, the president’s 2008 campaign group that has become an arm of the Democratic National Party, took out a full-page ad in USA Today and has used its vast e-mail database to urge supporters to volunteer for House members who vote for the bill.

Still, the efforts on the left seemed to pale against those on the right, at least early on.

The National Republican Congressional Committee’s project includes robo-calls, paid advertising and plans to activate its networks of physicians and small-business owners to campaign in their communities against the bill.

“This will be an aggressive, multi-front communications operation,” said committee spokesman Paul Lindsay.

The effort will be complemented by a variety of conservative grass-roots groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has targeted several members of Congress for special attention from its local affiliates.

The Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group that promotes women in politics, plans to spend at least $500,000 in the next three weeks to target eight key districts with robo-calls, radio ads and other activities.

“It will be the culmination of this almost year’s worth of work,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads the group, which has spent more than $1 million to produce 800,000 letters to Congress and 1.3 million robo-calls since June. “Pretty much the whole ground game focused on just a handful of districts. This is really it.”


Noam N. Levey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.