WASHINGTON — As health care overhaul efforts start to resemble a high-stakes poker game, House and Senate Democratic leaders are sending their members home with what they hope is an ace in the hole: a card full of information to share with constituents to bring them on deck.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that Democratic lawmakers are being given a talking-points card listing faults of the current system, benefits of the proposed plan and the plan’s effect on specific districts.
“I think it’s important for people to know, because these are kitchen-table issues,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference.
She said it was important to counter criticism — particularly from insurance companies, which she said “are out there in full force, carpet bombing, shock and awe” against the government-run insurance option in the House legislation.
Democratic leaders contend that the American public overwhelmingly supports a health care overhaul. Republicans respond that the more voters learn, the less they like the details.
The talking points are part of a concerted effort by Democrats to use the monthlong break to turn around what has become a precarious situation for the party, which has put many of its freshman and swing-district members in vulnerable situations by pushing legislation that polls show is sinking in voter approval. House members leave Friday; senators depart Aug. 7.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., conceded that Democrats have been losing the message war over the legislation, as Republicans hammer away at its costs and claim it would lead to a “government takeover” of health care.
“We’re responsible for putting together a plan, and so we’ve been focused on that,” he said. “Republicans have been somewhat free to conjure up whatever they want.”
He predicted, however, that Democrats will regain lost ground over the recess as they explain to constituents how the House bill would benefit them.
In the Senate, Democrats plan to promote sections of the overhaul that have been approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, such as those that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Negotiations continue in the Senate Finance Committee among three Democrats and three Republicans, including the chairman and the ranking Republican, in pursuit of a bipartisan bill that can win at least 60 votes on the floor.
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The House Energy and Commerce Committee has also been struggling to approve a bill after the leadership agreed to changes sought by committee Democrats in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition.
Clearing up misinformation
A number of House Democrats say they need the recess to explain the plan and listen to their constituents, who they say are confused by all the claims and counterclaims made on cable news shows and in special interest advertising.
“People want health care; they just don’t want what is being described to them,” said Tom Perriello, a freshman Democrat from Virginia.
Perriello, who narrowly beat Republican incumbent Virgil H. Goode Jr. last year, has already been targeted by the GOP in his 2010 re-election bid. When he heads home next week, Perriello said, he will visit all 21 counties in his district to talk about health care and other issues.
Perriello, whose father and sister are pediatricians, said he wants to vote for a health care overhaul “but is not there yet.”
Another vulnerable freshman Democrat, Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland, welcomed the Democratic leadership’s decision to put off a full House vote on health care until after the recess. He said lawmakers need the time to educate voters. Even though a goal of the bill is to make sure that the estimated 47 million Americans without health insurance get coverage, Kratovil said, much of the concern is coming from people who are insured.
“They got good coverage and they don’t want it messed up,” he said.
Falling public support
A Pew Research Center telephone poll conducted July 22-26 found that, by a 6 percentage point margin, more Americans oppose (44 percent) the health care proposals before Congress than support them (38 percent), with 18 percent undecided.
“The American people are making their voices heard in the debate over health care, and one of the things they’re demanding is that we do something to lower costs,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell\, R-Ky.
Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., president of the House freshman class, said the complaints he hears on health care are coming from different perspectives.
“You get people who are motivated by the talking heads at Fox [News Channel],” he said. “A lot of them are pulling out tons of misinformation.”
Another group of people, Connolly said, have specific concerns, such as care for long-term illnesses, and want to know how the health care overhaul will address their needs.
Jared Polis, a freshman Democrat who represents a Colorado district anchored by the liberal university town of Boulder, said there has recently been a spike in calls to his office about health care.
“A lot of people have a misunderstanding about what we are doing,” he said.
Allen Boyd of Florida, one of the Blue Dog Democrats pressing the leadership to cut costs in the health care plan, said he would spend the next month talking to his constituents about the legislation.
“I think the discussions will be spirited,” he said.
Bart Jansen and Edward Epstein contributed to this story.
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