WASHINGTON — As Congress left town for its August break, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio predicted that the Democrats were in for a long, hot summer.
He might be right.
With polls showing decreased support for President Barack Obama's handling of a proposed revamp of the nation's health care system, Democrats face a huge sales job before Congress votes on the plan next month.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, set the stage for a nasty debate by calling opponents in the insurance industry "villains." Opponents have responded with an aggressive campaign of disrupting Democratic town hall meetings around the country.
Pelosi is putting her considerable prestige on the line, predicting victory when the legislation hits the House floor. But she must first bring together competing factions of her party: liberals and the so-called "Blue Dog" conservative Democrats, many of whom have received big donations from the insurance industry.
She's urging her troops to take the offensive during Congress' five-week break, and Pelosi is taking her own advice. This week, she hit the road to sell the plan in Colorado and in her hometown of San Francisco.
At an event at San Francisco General Hospital, Pelosi appeared with a young woman who went into debt after fighting breast cancer. Pelosi told her the Democratic plan would put a cap on patient expenses without limiting access to health care.
When Pelosi headed to Denver on Thursday, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) said the speaker's "PR (public relations) train" had arrived, warning that the health care plan would cause a "staggering" amount of damage to the nation's deficit.
Democratic leaders, led by Obama, say it's time to spend nearly $1 trillion to provide health insurance to the nearly 50 million Americans who lack it. Under their plan, Americans couldn't be denied insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, and they wouldn't lose their coverage if they switched jobs or moved to another state.
Republican opponents charge that the plan would amount to a government takeover of health care, putting bureaucrats in charge of medical decisions. They also say that most Americans are satisfied with their insurance plans and would oppose any forced changes.
After fighting over health care for six decades, Congress has put the issue at the top of its agenda. House and Senate committees are putting the finishing touches on legislation that’s expected to be put to a vote after Congress returns from its summer break on Sept. 8.
That'll give both sides plenty of time to make their cases, spending millions of dollars on advertising and promotion along the way.
As part of a month-long effort, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is targeting more than two dozen opponents of the Democratic plan, using radio ads, live calls to radio talk shows, letters to the editor, on-line petition campaigns and phone calls to constituents.
"We are going district-by-district to hold Republicans accountable for trying to obstruct health insurance reform through their scare tactics and just-say-no protection of big insurance companies," said Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who heads the DCCC.
Many members of Congress say they want to host town-hall meetings to hear directly from constituents before deciding how they'll vote. But that's proving tricky.
When two Blue Dog Democrats hosted a town-hall meeting in Arkansas on Wednesday, opponents heckled and shouted them down. That prompted the NRCC to say that Democratic Rep. Mike Ross, one of the hosts, was "defeated and overwhelmed" and couldn't handle the pressure from constituents.
Similar incidents were reported in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Missouri and elsewhere across the country.
The NRCC began referring to them as "recess roastings."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that Democrats would be positive and work hard to get their message out for the rest of the month "in spite of the loud, shrill voices trying to interrupt town hall meetings and just throw a monkey wrench into everything."
California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer blamed "the right wing in this country" for trying to hurt Obama and the Democratically-controlled Congress by organizing opponents to storm the meetings.
Republicans vowed to step up the pressure.
"Democrats are in denial," said Boehner. "Instead of acknowledging the widespread anger millions of Americans are feeling this summer toward Democrat-controlled Washington, Washington Democrats are trying to dismiss it as a fabrication."