By Sam Youngman - 06/30/09 07:23 PM EDT
On Wednesday, Obama is holding yet another town hall on healthcare reform, his second in two weeks, this one in Annandale, Va. But Democrats and Republicans are starting to draw lines in the sand that make the chances of healthcare reform happening this year seem even more dicey.
And as Republicans have consistently targeted the public insurance option Obama has touted, some Democrats have come out in favor of taxing benefits as a way of paying for the costly plan.
Wednesday’s town hall follows on a pattern the administration has adopted whenever the president’s agenda faces roadblocks on Capitol Hill: Get out of Washington.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs joked Tuesday that having a town hall like Wednesday’s once a week is “an interesting concept.” Gibbs said Annandale was chosen because of its proximity to Washington, given that many security assets have been deployed abroad ahead of Obama’s trip to Russia, Italy and Ghana next week. The president will also be taking questions via Facebook and Twitter.
John Del Cecato, a columnist for The Hill who handled media strategy for the Obama campaign, said Tuesday that Obama “gets in the zone when he escapes the Washington groupthink and has a chance to interact with regular people.”
“He really believes that grassroots mobilization can overcome entrenched institutional power,” Del Cecato said. “In some ways, he’s not a president who used to be a community organizer, but a community organizer who ascended into the presidency.
“And that may make some folks in Congress nervous, because real grassroots mobilization is one force that insiders haven’t figured out how to neutralize.”
Congress is on its Fourth of July recess this week, but lawmakers are discussing the issue with constituents. Healthcare reform is expected to be a leading priority when members return to Washington.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), whose district the president is visiting, defended leaving the public option on the table, but he said Tuesday he will not support any plan that includes taxing employer benefits.
“That would be a killer here in my district,” Connolly said.
Connolly will join the president after the town hall for another one via telephone with more than 50,000 people from his district. On Tuesday he spoke to reporters on a conference call arranged by Organizing for America (OFA), the campaign wing of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
OFA officials acknowledged Tuesday that they are staying away from the details as they push the president’s agenda through town halls, service projects and house meetings across the country.
“We are keeping our discussions generally almost at the 30,000-foot level,” OFA Executive Director Mitch Stewart said. “If we were to jump into the legislative minutiae on a daily basis, it would greatly hinder, frankly, our conversations around the country.”
OFA spokesman Brad Woodhouse conceded that “the devil is in the details,” but added that the president should be commended for continuing the conversation.
“There are questions about what the details are, but no one is saying that reform is off the table. No one is saying we don’t need healthcare reform,” Woodhouse said. “That’s not what they were saying in the ’90s.”
Gibbs has been pressed this week to rule out a tax increase to pay for healthcare, something he has declined to do so far.
“The president is going to watch the process,” Gibbs said. “He’s going to be flexible, and we’ll evaluate it as we go along.”
Republicans, however, see an opening as the healthcare debate has grown more convoluted and more Americans are questioning how the president intends to pay for it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor last week that “Americans are insisting that members of Congress work together on reforms that make healthcare more affordable and accessible but which don’t force people off their current plans or add to an already-staggering national debt.
“And yet the Democrat plan now being rushed through the Senate would do just the opposite,” McConnell said. “It would force millions of Americans off of their healthcare plans and bury our nation deeper and deeper in debt.”