August means beaches and barbecues. And for some, a chance to rally the troops for this fall’s health care showdown.
Senate postponement of work on health care until September gives interest groups on both sides an entire month to whip up supporters, and pushes off crucial votes on the overhaul effort until fall — when people are likely to refocus on the issue.
Backers and opponents of President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority plan to use Congress’ August recess for intensive advertising and grass-roots campaigns in hopes that energized voters might influence wavering lawmakers. Even so, some political and media veterans consider the summer a tough time to sway people, who are often more focused on vacation than legislation.
"The real fight will come from September through November, when you can really swing public opinion and change hearts and minds," said Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.
That won’t stop interest groups from trying to get their voices heard in August.
Health Care for America Now, a coalition of labor and progressive groups supporting Obama, will at least match the $2 million in TV ads it’s run this month and send members to lawmakers’ town hall meetings, said Richard Kirsch, its national campaign manager.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a foe, will run print ads in Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine and North Carolina criticizing Obama’s proposal for optional government-run insurance coverage, place newspaper op-eds and stage events around the country.
The states are home to moderate Democrats and Republicans crucial to passage of any health care bill in the Senate.
The conservative Americans for Prosperity, which considers Democrats’ plans a federal takeover of health care, is sending two buses to 13 states to rouse opposition. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has a touring recreational vehicle of its own. The drug and health insurance industries, which both oppose optional government coverage, plan to continue their ad campaigns endorsing the broad concept of reshaping the medical system.
Generally, both sides agree that the August break hands an opportunity to opponents, who can use the time to highlight specific objections.
Randel Johnson, chief health care lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has opposed key elements of the effort, said House passage before recess could actually help his side.
"If the House passes a bill as bad as the stuff in its committees right now, it’s going to be a big, fat, easy target," he said.
So far, $41 million has been spent on TV advertising in this year’s health care battle, with supporters’ expenditures outnumbering opponents by nearly 2-to-1, Tracey said. Underscoring the growing intensity, the past week has seen average total spending exceeding $1 million a day, he said.
The House is scheduled to recess July 31, the Senate a week later.
Divisions among senators over how to find roughly $1 trillion needed over 10 years to pay for the overhaul, and other details, prompted Democratic leaders to concede this week that the Senate would not start debating legislation until after the break. House Democrats were also enmeshed in disputes, raising questions about whether that chamber would also delay its work until September and forcing interest groups to recalibrate their August advertising plans.
Many groups have planned to focus their ad dollars on states where senators are seen as undecided on the issue, such as Maine, Arkansas and Louisiana. If the House doesn’t vote until autumn, several lobbyists said they would also want to target advertising dollars on districts of House "Blue Dog" moderate Democrats, who tend to come from the South and rural areas and are pushing to contain the legislation’s costs.
"Our plans are changing as we speak," said John Rother, executive vice president for policy and strategy at AARP, which represents older voters. And with the possibility of no votes in Congress until fall, he said, "Now we have to anticipate a more drawn-out debate."
The White House played down the potential impact of the August recess.
"I think the notion that somehow in a debate we’ve had for 40 years that some month called August in 2009 is going to be appreciably different than all the others seems to me to not necessarily be the case," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.