GOP Campaign to Sway Democrats Moves Slowly

Posted January 15, 2010 at 6:31pm

A week after House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced an effort to persuade dozens of Democrats to abandon their support for health care reform, he appears to have made little headway, and several of the targets that he has identified said they have yet to hear from him.

As Democratic leaders race to merge the bills passed by the House and Senate, Republicans would not identify any Members across the aisle whom they have tried to sway, and Roll Call could not locate any Democrats who said they have been contacted about turning back their support for President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan.

Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), a freshman whose seat is among the most ripe for a GOP pickup, on Friday said he hadn’t yet heard from Cantor or any of his deputies about health care.

The same went for Rep. Dennis Moore (Kan.), a retiring conservative Democrat, who spoke to Roll Call on Friday after leaving a Democratic Caucus question-and-answer session with President Bill Clinton.

In a Jan. 6 memo to his Conference and “interested parties,— Cantor said his whip team has identified 37 House Democrats who “can be persuaded to vote against a final health care agreement.—

“If we can convince enough of these 37 Members (along with the 39 Democrats who already voted no) to reconsider and switch their position on the bill, I know that we can defeat this government take-over of our health care before it becomes law,— Cantor said in the memo.

Cantor has made the plan central to the GOP strategy of killing the Democratic health care reform bill, saying he encouraged Republican Members to reach out to Democrats in their state delegations and see whether “they would entertain— a vote against their leadership and “join us in opposition to this bill.—

“This is a whip effort on steroids,— Cantor said. “We are all in and making sure we are doing everything to defeat this bill.—

But a final bill was rapidly coming together last week as House and Senate leaders were swiftly reaching agreements on a number of issues thanks to heavy involvement from the White House.

Democrats may reach an agreement soon, which will have to go to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring, and House Democrats have vowed to make a final bill available for 72 hours prior to a vote. Those factors should give Cantor at least a week to get his whip plan rolling.

Cantor was undeterred by the time crunch.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi “cannot lose one of her ‘yes’ votes,— Cantor said, referencing the 219 Democrats who joined only one Republican in passing the bill on a 220-215 vote.

He said he didn’t expect any Republicans to vote for the bill — including Rep. Anh “Joseph— Cao (La.) who was the only Republican to vote for the bill in November.

Cao’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“We are in conversations with [Democrats],— Cantor said Friday, adding that several Republicans have asked for more information from the whip’s office to help them build their case to an interested Democratic colleague.

But getting that one “yes— may be easier said than done, even if the outreach is significant.

Driehaus indicated his GOP colleagues should save their persuasion tactics for someone else.

“Eric Cantor thinks I live in Pennsylvania, if that shows you how close we are,— said Driehaus, who at one point in the Cantor memo is identified as a member of the Pennsylvania delegation.

Asked whether he would be willing to talk to Republicans about changing his vote, Driehaus said, “No, [Republicans] don’t have much credibility in our Caucus.—

Moore also cast doubt on Cantor’s ability to sway his vote.

“I tell people back home Congress should have passed some health care legislation 40-plus years ago. We didn’t do it and we can’t change what didn’t happen,— he said. “This bill is not perfect, but it’s good. If we get something in place, we can improve upon it in the future.—

Several spokesmen for other Members on Cantor’s list also indicated that their bosses had yet to hear from their GOP colleagues.

Leah Hunter, a spokeswoman for Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), said that Kind’s staff was not aware of any Republican outreach but that the reasons outlined in Cantor’s memo were “not sufficient enough— to get Kind to change his vote.

“No Republican members of Congress have lobbied Congressman Connolly on the health care bill,— wrote George Burke, communications director for Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that last week’s abbreviated schedule contributed to the slow start and that Republicans would be working hard to educate Democratic Members about the contents of the final bill.

“We believe where the health care bill is right now, everyone has to be involved,— he said.

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Cantor, said the whip team is “working night and day to stop— the health care reform bill and hinted that there could be defections in the Democratic Caucus that take Democratic leaders by surprise.

“There’s certainly no shortage of frustrated, angry Members who face a public revolt in their districts if they support a bill that Americans have rejected,— Dayspring said.

In addition to reaching out to their House Democratic colleagues directly, Cantor has encouraged GOP Members to draw attention to the health care issue through letters to their delegations, letters to their governors and opinion pieces in their local papers.

Doug Thornell, spokesman for Assistant to the Speaker and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) predicted Cantor’s effort would fail.

“Cantor’s time would be better spent helping us mop up the mess he and George Bush created. He has about as much credibility with House Democrats as a boardroom full of health insurance executives,— Thornell said.