Van Hollen Uses Town Hall to Mollify Critics

Posted September 2, 2009 at 7:55pm

Just days before returning to Capitol Hill to face a restive Caucus, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) took to the phone lines Wednesday to make the case for a public insurance option — and the Democrats’ broader health care reform drive — in three teleconference town halls with his constituents.

Van Hollen used an early evening session to argue that the public plan now at the center of an intraparty debate over how to move forward “is an important way to provide competition and choice.—

The Maryland Democrat, who also serves as Assistant to the Speaker, has helped lead House Democrats’ late-summer charge against insurance companies, whom he says have enjoyed surging profits by denying quality care. “They’ve done well, and they’re fighting this,— he said.

House Democratic liberals have drawn a line in the sand on the provision, with more than 60 declaring they will not vote for a final package that does not include a robust public plan. But recent statements from White House officials have cast doubt over whether the administration will back them up as it prepares to engage more fully in final negotiations on the Hill.

Van Hollen sought to reassure callers that the plan will not cover illegal immigrants, will allow people to keep their current, employer-based coverage and will not cut benefits to those on Medicare.

Tort reform — a political hot potato for Democrats close to trial lawyers — should be on the table as a cost-cutting measure, Van Hollen said. But he argued that independent budget projections have found reining in malpractice suits would produce limited savings and said patients need to be able to hold doctors accountable for negligent care.

Van Hollen’s phone sessions Wednesday came after an in-person town hall event he held Friday — his first of the recess. Other House Democratic leaders, too, have been slow to face the crowds that provided many of their rank-and-file colleagues an ugly homecoming in early August.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who was traveling in the beginning of last month, first faced his own constituents on Tuesday night — a rowdy gathering of nearly 1,500 people. Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.), on the mend from heart surgery earlier in August, was set to hold his first town hall Wednesday night.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has so far opted against holding an open town hall in favor of smaller, more targeted events around her district. Those included a tour of San Francisco General Hospital, a roundtable on the issue with religious leaders and a speech to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. Pelosi has another roundtable with small-business leaders scheduled for Thursday.

“When we set out to look at this August, we made a plan to touch as many neighborhoods and communities as possible,— Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said. “We feel we’ve done that with the events we’ve held.—