The health care debate is fanning out across America this week, from the Oval Office and ornate congressional hearing rooms to high school gyms and coffee shops, where lawmakers are getting an earful from constituents on how to reform one-fifth of the nation's economy. But how will the sights and sounds of health care reform this month affect the shape of the bill this fall?
For clues, let's turn to a handful of incumbents from each chamber who, perhaps because they face tough re-election bids next year, made town hall meetings a top scheduling priority for their August recess. The messages they heard were, in many cases, orchestrated and manufactured by outside groups. But that doesn't mean the lawmakers weren't listening.
Democrats aren't the only lawmakers facing tough choices.
Joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in Philadelphia on Sunday, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., faced a raucous crowd of voters who erupted in outrage when he said lawmakers sometimes "have to make judgments very fast" when dealing with complex legislation. Specter, facing re-election in 2010 for the first time as a Democrat, likely faces the greatest resistance from Republicans, a majority of whom are concerned that Congress is moving too quickly on health care reform, according to a recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll. Their message: Go slow, senator, get it right.
Specter has to navigate health care politics carefully. While the senator seeks to fend off a tough challenge on the left from Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary, conservative Pat Toomey, the likely GOP nominee, is making bold strides toward the political center with gestures such as voicing support for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.
On Monday, Sebelius was in Connecticut, where she joined Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., at a decidedly more genteel affair in Hartford. Dodd, who has sought to turn his recent prostate cancer diagnosis into a rallying cry for health care reform, was greeted as a conquering hero by Democrats after shepherding a liberal reform plan through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month. But because his bill would require many employers to provide new insurance or expand existing coverage, Dodd has drawn ire from business groups, which is why he focused his town hall meeting on small businesses.
The heat is being felt even by lawmakers who don't face the voters next year. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., returned home to face an ad campaign financed by the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is trying to pressure the swing-vote senator to support a public option. When Nelson cried foul, the group responded by tripling its ad buy. Smart politics? Perhaps. But I can't help thinking the group is playing right into Nelson's hands by helping him burnish his centrist creds, always a good thing in ruby-red Nebraska.
Democrats aren't the only lawmakers facing tough choices. In the House, Rep. Anh (Joseph) Cao, R-La., perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent up in 2010, last week told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that voting against a Democratic health care bill "will probably be the death of my political career" in his poor, solidly Democratic district. However, he told the newspaper, "I have to live with myself, and I always reflect on the phrase of the New Testament, 'How does it profit a man's life to gain the world but to lose his soul?'"
But perhaps no one so far has faced a more rambunctious crowd than Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who was swarmed at a town hall meeting in Austin by critics shouting "Just Say No!" to protest his House Ways and Means Committee vote in support of a government-run health care option.
"Many of these people were summoned in by the local Republican and Libertarian parties. They didn't even live in the neighborhood. They were there not just to be heard but to ensure other people weren't heard on this. A real desperation tactic," Doggett said Monday on MSNBC's "Hardball." "... In my case, it really just reaffirmed my resolve to go back and get a strong public plan, force more competition, provide more choice to people, get the reform I know my constituents want."
The biggest lesson Doggett drew from protesters' shouts was to shout louder. A sign of things to come?