In late July, Arkansas Rep. Vic Snyder was a fired-up partisan, declaring that health care was going to be transformed “under President Obama’s leadership.”
By mid-August, the physician and moderate Democrat had been humbled: “I’ve never been a big fan of this public option,” Snyder told a tough crowd of 1,000 people at a town hall in Little Rock.
Democrats lost the month of August — not just in the polls and at town hall events but also within their own caucus. The question now is whether they can win September and win back the Vic Snyders. Or reel in freshmen Democrats such as Reps. Thomas Perriello of Virginia and Betsy Markey of Colorado, both of whom say they will vote against the House bill as written. Or lure back Rep. Steve Driehaus of Ohio, a freshman Democrat who is already engaged in one of the most competitive 2010 House races in the country and remains undecided on whether to back his president and his party on health care.
“A lot of us were blindsided by what we heard out at these meetings,” Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) told POLITICO.
The comeback for Democrats — if there is one — will begin in an all-important closed-door caucus meeting next week in the basement of the Capitol, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her top lieutenants will try to undo the damage of the August recess and convince their wobbly members that a vote for health care reform will not cost them their jobs in 2010.
Leaders say their strategy is to convince members that nothing is set in stone and that they are more than open to negotiations. And they’re engaging in a softer sell, prioritizing health insurance reforms while pitching the public option as something that’s way, way down the road.
“We’re going to ask, ‘Where are you now? Is there something we need to add to get [you] to vote for this?’” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is charged with ensuring that the party’s most vulnerable members are reelected in 2010.
“You’ll see a groundswell once it’s here, and you’ll see we aren’t trying to ram this down anyone’s throats,” said Clyburn.
Clyburn, for his part, is advocating a “two step” approach in which the most widely supported health insurance reforms, like coverage for pre-existing conditions, go into effect immediately, while the public option is framed as a distant step — something that would go into effect in 2013, only after benchmarks and pilot programs are studied.
Clyburn has proposed setting up modest pilot programs for the public option in certain regions or states — an experimental way of seeing whether these health exchanges can actually work at the local level before they go nationwide.
But leaders are also planning on undertaking a concerted effort to convince their rank and file that the public option still has robust voter support. When they head into the meeting next week, leaders will be armed with polling data to make their case.
Whatever course the negotiations take, Democrats say the key is convincing heartburn-ridden members that they are flexible.
Leaders are placing a priority on reaching out to Democrats like Snyder, a six-term lawmaker from a moderate-to-conservative-minded district. In an interview last week, Snyder insisted that he still supported a health care reform package. But he also acknowledged that he had renewed concerns about the costs of a bill.
“I think the discussions have reinforced that we have to be fiscally sound, as is always the case,” he said. “I think it was important before, but it was an issue that a lot of people brought up.”
Democrats are also reaching out to Maryland Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., a freshman who is among the most vulnerable House Democrats in the country and whose name made national news last month when he was hung in effigy by a protester in his home district.
“I went into the recess with serious concerns,” said Kratovil. “I’d say there certainly were numbers of people who expressed similar concerns to the ones I had.”
Democrats say they were expecting tough questions but acknowledge they were taken aback by the ferocity of the pushback at town halls.
“Have we lost momentum? Yeah,” said Snyder, saying that the party had not done a good job explaining how health care reform would help people who already are insured. “I think it’s fair to say the momentum has slowed somewhat, but it’s still there.”
The fence sitters say they’re willing to listen to Democratic leaders next week — but they’re not making any promises.
“I’m still very much on the fence, but it depends where the bill is,” said Driehaus. “I don’t think you take this time and effort to just sit on your hands.”
“I’m a no on the bill. But I’d very much like to get to yes,” said Perriello.
Van Hollen, who has been in touch with the most vulnerable members throughout the August recess, expressed confidence that members would come around in the end.
“There are very few members of the caucus who flat-out have said they won’t vote for a bill,” he said.
And House Democrats appear more than willing to play a game of chicken with the Senate to avoid taking a politically treacherous vote without a guarantee that the upper chamber is going to do something. In fact, the House may wait until a bill is headed to the Senate floor — something that doesn’t happen unless the Senate majority leader believes he has the votes to pass it.
“We’re not going to make our guys walk off the cliff without seeing what the hell the Senate does,” said one House Democratic leadership aide.