As Vote Looms, Interest Groups Intensify Push

Posted November 3, 2009 at 6:12pm

The phones will be ringing more than usual in the offices of Democratic lawmakers this week, and radio and TV ads will flood the airwaves.

As the House prepares to vote on massive health care legislation as early as Friday, outside groups on the left and right with deep pockets are going into overdrive to make sure their opinions are heard.

Some lawmakers, however, questioned the effectiveness of last-minute lobbying efforts, complaining they tie up office phones and are coming at a point when Members are already well-versed in the legislation and their constituents’ views.

“People have made up their minds one way or the other,— said Rep. Ron Klein, a Democrat from South Florida who said he will support the health care legislation.

Nevertheless, Klein said his staff had noticed an uptick in the calls and e-mails on health care coming into his office Tuesday.

Richard Kirsch, president of Health Care for America NOW, a coalition of union and community organizations that has been pressing for health care reform, said he didn’t want to take anything for granted in advance of the House vote.

“It is a very intense week,— he said.

HCAN, along with the AFL-CIO, plans to place from 50,000 to 100,000 phone calls to Congressional offices Thursday. HCAN is resuming its advertising campaign, and its grass-roots organizers from around the country also plan to contact every House Democrat’s office.

Kirsch said all of the activity is being aimed at pressing Democrats to support the bill. With House Republicans having made it clear that they will not vote for the health care bill, Kirsch said the attitude has been “why waste our breath— on them.

HCAN has already shelled out $8 million on paid media and plans to spend an additional $4 million to $5 million in the final weeks, Kirsch said.

HCAN, with a paid staff of 140, is financially supported by $500,000 in contributions from its steering committee’s members as well as an $18 million grant from the Atlantic Philanthropies, which was set up by Charles F. Feeney, co-founder of a duty-free shops empire.

MoveOn.org, another well-funded liberal group, also launched new radio spots Tuesday aimed at Senate Democratic moderates whom Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) needs to commence debate on the health care bill.

Reid recently unveiled a plan that includes the public insurance option that has drawn skepticism from moderates in his party.

The ads urge Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, both Democrats, not to side with Republicans and block a vote on health care reform.

Ilyse Hogue, a spokeswoman for MoveOn, said the spots were part of a multimillion-dollar media campaign that eclipsed anything the group had done other than presidential campaigns.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, founded by former hospital magnate Richard Scott, also announced another ad campaign this week.

The $325,000 ad buy, which is playing on Fox and CNN, questions whether the public insurance component will allow people to keep their own doctor and health insurance and won’t lead to rationing of care.

Even though the House is likely to approve the health care bill, Scott still believes the effort can be stopped in the Senate.

Scott has invested $5 million of his own money into his organization, which has spent a total of about $8 million so far.

He argued the advertising money was well-spent because it had informed the public about problems with the Democratic plan, forcing leaders to continually push back their timetable for advancing the legislation.

Scott said that when he started the group in March, “Everyone said, ‘You are an idiot.’— But he added, “We have given people information, and Democrats have to explain themselves.—

Not everyone is convinced that advertising is the best way to influence lawmakers.

FreedomWorks, the conservative group that is chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), is focusing on grass-roots lobbying rather than television or radio spots, according to spokesman Adam Brandon.

Aside from being incredibly expensive, Brandon said television ads often are not very well-targeted.

Brandon said his group has been working to get activists to visit Congressional offices in Washington, D.C., as well as to hold rallies in the home states of key lawmakers, including Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Lincoln.

“I would take five activists in a Congressman’s office over a TV ad any day,— Brandon said. “Television ads don’t vote.—

But Charlie Black, a longtime lobbyist and GOP political adviser, said ads can be effective, if they prompt constituents to call an undecided lawmaker. Furthermore, Black said the ads could serve as a warning to lawmakers “of what they will get in their campaigns.—

Ideological groups are not the only ones raising their profiles in the days before the House votes. A coalition of business associations, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation, announced Tuesday a national advertising campaign targeting the House bill. The ad warns that the House bill would raise costs and put employees’ current health care plans at risk. It will run nationally on cable and in 19 states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire and North Dakota.

Some lawmakers said that while the last-minute lobbying was predictable, it was not useful.

“I’m shocked,— Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) joked when asked about the escalation of lobbying before the House vote. Kind said most lawmakers “have been living and breathing— health care for months. He added that most have already held numerous meetings with constituents and are not easily swayed by orchestrated calling campaigns.

Klein also said the lawmakers had already taken into consideration the complaints that they heard during the summer break in crafting the legislation.

And Rep. John Boccieri, a freshman Democrat from Ohio, said the phone campaigns were disruptive.

“If the staff is devoting time to answering phone calls from California and Texas and New York City, that doesn’t serve the constituents of Ohio,— he said.

But Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) was more receptive to the calls to his office from other parts of the nation.

“It is appropriate for people to participate,— he said. “When I vote as a U.S. Congressman, I am voting on laws that affect all of Americans.—