WASHINGTON-Emerging from yet another closed-door meeting last week, House Democratic leaders flashed confident smiles, certain that the healthcare overhaul, their legislative albatross of 2009, would be a 2010 victory.
"I do believe that all of us heard from our constituents over the holidays, and we know that they are looking forward to [having] legislation well on its way to reconciliation," chimed House Majority Whip James Clyburn during his turn at the podium. "The American people will feel that the time and energy in this effort has been worthwhile."
But this press event occurred inside the U.S. Capitol, 527 miles from Clyburn's South Carolina district. His office did not respond to a request for Clyburn's public schedule back home over the month-long congressional holiday recess. But it seems that only a handful of congressional lawmakers have met with constituents over the past month-and many of those meetings have been tightly orchestrated: tours of facilities for which the visiting lawmaker secured federal dollars or invitation-only rallies, to name two.
The passage of a trillion-dollar healthcare package handing the federal government the reins to one-sixth of the nation's economy may be just weeks away. But healthcare proponents, smelling victory, are not only shutting out the minority political party: They are also ignoring the American majority. Despite polls showing that nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose the current healthcare plan, lawmakers continue to insulate themselves from criticism.
At a carefully controlled Jan. 7 Las Vegas event, participants could RSVP after receiving an invitation from the Democratic Party. Supporters there grabbed and kicked out one healthcare opponent after he tried to question Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "I'm sorry to say this is what we've been dealing with for a long time," Reid said, shaking his head. Apparently barred from the event: questions.
This is a departure from last August's volatile town hall meetings when pro-reform legislators smacked into constituents and came away surprised. It seems Democrats have learned their lesson.
So, with this holiday recess providing lawmakers the longest block of home time since August, they are responding in different ways: Some, like Minnesota's Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, took refuge in Afghanistan where she showered troops with NFL Vikings hats in advance of a photo-op. South Dakota's Sen. Tim Johnson stayed close to home by visiting sites he'd secured funds for through, according to his press release, "his seat on the powerful appropriations' committee." Other senators kept busy bombarding press releases (16 in one week by Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer: Don't worry New Yorkers, the Bills are not leaving Buffalo for sunny Los Angeles, he assured his constituents).
Federal grants for green jobs seemed to be a big hit, possibly to help everyone forget about the white winter. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell ($13.48 million) and both Pennsylvania Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey ($2.1 million) joined a flurry of lawmakers touting the greenbacks they garnered for green grants. Others spent the recess retiring from office: See Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
But some Democrats who voted for the healthcare overhaul did boldly venture out to speak with the people. And those who did allow for questions without fear of security-escorted removal found a sizeable skepticism over current plans: "The majority of seniors feel they are getting screwed," Oshkosh, Wis., resident Pat Braasch told her senator, Russ Feingold, during one of his listening sessions. "Washington is passing legislation that will force our children, our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren into poverty," added Viola Schmick, of Omro, Wis., at the same meeting. "Most aren't for this bill," Ken Johnson of Loyalsock Township, Pa., reminded his congressman, Democratic Rep. Chris Carney, during a January town hall meeting at Lycoming College.
But more surprising than these constituent concerns was the way many lawmakers tried to distance themselves from elements of the very healthcare overhaul they voted to support. Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin told fellow Illinoisans: "Is this the bill I wanted? No." Democratic Rep. John Spratt told a Rock Hill, S.C., audience that parts of the bill were "wholly indefensible" and predicted an "uprising on the House floor." And Democratic Rep. John Murtha, the dean of securing dollars for his Pennsylvania, told listeners on a telephone town hall he is "convinced we need transparency in this case."
Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, facing poll numbers showing just 38 percent of voters would support her 2010 reelection efforts, stopped in nine cities the first week of January. She publicly attacked the thinly veiled political bribes lawmakers wrangled to pass healthcare in the Senate: "The people of Arkansas didn't send me to Washington to be a horse trader," she exclaimed, explaining why she voted for the bill without getting her own hand in the healthcare cookie jar.
Even Sen. Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat who became the crucial 60th and final Senate healthcare vote only after he landed a $300 million "Cornhusker Kickback" Medicaid exemption, assured folks back home that he knows "it was a mistake to take healthcare on as opposed to continuing to spend the time on the economy."
Yet, while this was going on around the country, many of the congressional ringleaders, who pulled out all the stops in their arm-twisting for a final vote, seemed content to continue plotting ways to make the healthcare overhaul law while bypassing normal procedures. A traditional formal bipartisan conference committee to hash out the differences between the now-passed House and Senate healthcare prescriptions could be tabled in favor of continued closed-door efforts to merge the two bills. These partisan internal negotiations would shut out Republicans and would limit the number of votes lawmakers would have to call before final passage.
This fast-tracking tactic drew the attention of C-SPAN founder Brain Lamb. In a letter to President Obama and congressional leaders, Lamb wrote: "We respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American."
But so far Democrats are resisting such overtures for cameras. This seems to contradict the repeated statements of one presidential candidate in 2008 who promised that "we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies." One guess: yes, President Barack Obama.
Flustered by the lack of access to lawmakers this recess, tea party groups have turned to the 20th century's version of town halls: online social networking. Already they have latched onto CSPAN's transparency plea by creating a web petition drive to "let the cameras in" that is averaging about 10,000 new signees daily. Internet pages in support of the tea party movement are already promoting State of the Union viewing parties where participants will invite local media to hear their own post-speech state of the union assessments.
With late night and early morning holiday votes to advance the bill while no one is watching, America's trust factor when it comes to their lawmakers is continuing to plummet. Now will the efforts to junk a formal committee to merge the two bills emerge as the last healthcare straw?
"We don't have bills like this every single year," Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, told me. Not having a clear understanding about what is going to happen next "makes people frightened and outraged."
Indeed, there seems to be a growing frustration that all the grassroots action of the past year will not defeat the bill. But Adam Brandon with Freedom Works is trying to remind conservatives that the healthcare debate won't end even if the bill passes: "People went to the town halls last year because that was where the action was. The action this year won't be the town halls. It will be the elections. You never want to be on the wining side of a controversial issue in an election year."