WASHINGTON — Gene Otto left his Olympia, Wash., bakery for a day, flew across the country to the nation's capital and told four members of Congress why it's important that they overhaul America's health care system.
Another Capitol Hill newcomer, John Jacobson, drove his family from Allamuchy, N.J., to warn lawmakers that the Democrats' plan that the House of Representatives will debate on Saturday is dangerous.
"I've never been to the Capitol in my life," the unemployed Jacobson said. "I can't believe it's come to this, that I may have to pay for other people's bad choices."
Lawmakers are being bombarded as rarely before by first-time constituent visitors such as these, not to mention by special interests and professional lobbyists — especially lobbyists. Health industry interests spent $396.2 million on lobbying in the first nine months of this year, a pace that would likely shatter last year's $486 million total by them, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors money in politics.
Every day, there's another rally at the Capitol, a new ad, a fresh batch of people from home. Friday morning, the lobbyist-in-chief, President Barack Obama, is scheduled to add his muscle when he meets behind closed doors with House Democrats.
He's promoting the Democrats' House bill, which would create a government-run health insurance plan, or public option; bar insurers from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions and set up an exchange, or marketplace, where consumers could shop for coverage.
It's not a done deal. The House needs 218 votes to pass the bill, and since Democrats won two House races Tuesday, the party will control 258 seats by the time the House votes, which it's expected to do late Saturday.
Many lawmakers still have concerns, however, particularly about how extensively abortion services would be funded and permitted, as well as whether illegal immigrants would be able to access health insurance under the legislation.
Democratic leaders voiced confidence that those issues would be resolved by Saturday. Most lobbying this week has focused on broader issues, notably cost and government expansion.
Spending by the health-industry lobby has been greater than any other special interest this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A total of 3,306 people are registered as health industry lobbyists.
"It's unprecedented," said David Levinthal, the center's spokesman. "It'll certainly affect the way legislation is being crafted."
By contrast, consumer groups and other interest groups backing the Democratic plan have spent far less. Labor interests have spent $32 million so far this year, compared with $40 million in all of 2008.
Pressure to support the House bill is visible all around the Capitol. Women's groups earlier this week staged a 12-hour vigil in downtown Washington, where they described personal experiences with the health care system. A "stroller brigade" converged on the Capitol lawn Wednesday demanding better care for children.
The AFL-CIO is engaged in a "national week of action" that involves having a million members pushing colleagues to call and write members of Congress.
AARP, which represents seniors, and the American Medical Association, which represents doctors, made strategically timed endorsements Thursday of the House Democratic bill, prompting a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room Thursday by a pleased Obama.
AARP's backing, the president said, should help counter "the same tired arguments to the contrary from the insurance companies and their lobbyists."
As for the AMA's endorsement, Obama said: "They would not be supporting it if they really believed that it would lead to government bureaucrats making decisions that are best left to doctors."
Opposing the legislation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has generated about 436,000 letters from businesses all over America to lawmakers since July. Last year, it made 40,000 calls total on every issue before Congress. In September, representatives of 3,159 business groups signed a letter to key members of Congress opposing a health care overhaul.
Employers for a Health Economy, a coalition of a dozen business-oriented groups, Thursday began running an ad in newspapers titled "The Worst Bill Ever."
House Republicans rallied Thursday at the Capitol with thousands of protesters chanting "kill the bill," which Minority Leader John Boehner called "the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen."
Members of Congress routinely say that constituent concerns influence them, but they generally say they dismiss the influence of lobbying and pressure groups.
While she listens to as many views as she can, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said "ultimately, I was elected to provide my best judgment. I feel I've studied this thoroughly now, and know it pretty well."
The lobbyists and the grassroots folks try to make the issue as personal as possible. That's why Otto and eight other Washington state residents made their coast-to-coast day trip on Tuesday.
Primary funding for the journey came from the Main Street Alliance, a national network of small business owners who back the House Democratic bill.
Otto pays for health insurance for seven employees at his bakery; each has to buy an individual policy since the company doesn't have the financial resources to obtain group coverage. Those policies are expensive, and deductibles are high, he explained.
"We need help, and we think this bill can give us some help," Otto said.
Jacobson, who drove his Chrysler 300 to Washington Thursday thought coverage would only get more costly if the legislation passes.
He stood at the GOP rally shaking his head, amazed that the health care overhaul has gotten this close to passage.
"People want to smoke, drink, do drugs and be sexually promiscuous and eat junk food — why should I have to pay for their mistakes?" Jacobson asked. "With nationalized health care, people are going to be able to do what they want and we'll have to pay."
He gets coverage through his union. Asked if some in that pool engaged in unsavory behavior, Jacobson explained, "We pay high health care costs, and we're taking care of our own people."
(Steven Thomma contributed to this article.)
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