Rally backs health plan

In a reverse twist on the old protesters’ tactic of getting arrested to make a point, union leaders and other backers of President Obama’s healthcare plan issued “citizen’s arrest” warrants for health insurance executives Tuesday -- accusing them of exploiting consumers.

The “warrants,” delivered to police during a demonstration outside an insurance industry meeting at a Washington hotel, were an attempt to build public support for the Democrats’ healthcare legislation. The demonstration drew several thousand protesters, and it will be followed in coming weeks by more events and an advertising campaign.

“We’re doing something that we should have done a while ago,” said Gerald W. McEntee, president of AFSCME, the municipal employees union. “Whatever it takes, we’ll do.”

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said House leaders had not committed to finishing work on the healthcare bill by March 18, as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had suggested last week.

Hoyer said he was planning to meet soon with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) to discuss the legislation’s abortion provisions. Stupak, a leader among antiabortion Democrats, said recently that he thought an agreement was possible.

At the protest, McEntee said the unions are also targeting Senate Democrats who are opposed to using the parliamentary tactic of reconciliation, which prevents filibusters. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) is one such lawmaker. She is being challenged in this year’s primary by a more liberal Democrat, and the unions are actively supporting the challenger.

“I think we’ll take her out,” McEntee said. “Just by doing it, I think it sends a message to members of Congress -- they’ve got to listen to us.”

At the same time, a coalition of business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began a new TV ad campaign attacking the healthcare legislation as too costly at a time when businesses are struggling to recover from the recession.

“We thought Washington understood that jobs was the priority,” said R. Bruce Josten, the chamber’s chief Washington lobbyist and a leading critic of Democrats’ healthcare initiative.

Times staff writers Janet Hook and Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.