Finance committee vote opens healthcare lobbying floodgates

Interest groups have unleashed a torrent of spending and grassroots activity to influence the Senate healthcare debate.

The completion of committee work on landmark healthcare legislation has spurred a torrent of spending and activity by interest groups seeking to influence the upcoming Senate floor debate.

Labor unions, business organizations and conservative and liberal advocacy groups have timed advertising and grassroots campaigns to coincide with the Senate Finance Committee’s 14-9 vote that approved the bill.

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MoveOn.org, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) all have launched advertising assaults in recent days. These groups have all taken critical aim at the Finance Committee legislation in hopes of derailing provisions they oppose.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has the task of merging the Finance legislation with a bill approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee before beginning the contentious floor debate at the end of the month. Reid is expected to convene meetings with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.); Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the lead sponsor of the HELP bill; White House officials; and others to produce the combined bill.

The time in between gives interest groups an opportunity to influence a group of centrist Democrats and Republicans who have so far stayed on the sidelines while the two panels crafted legislation.

Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, a group of 3 million workers affiliated with the AFL-CIO, said her organization would increase its grassroots lobbying activity by two- or three-fold in the next few weeks. A major goal is to draw attention to a key provision left out of the Baucus bill — a government-run health insurance plan that was included in the HELP bill.

Other groups are planning similar bursts of activity.

“We’ll really be ramping up phone calls and letters from our membership,” said Nussbaum. “The Baucus bill needs to have a public option and be more like the HELP bill before we can support it.”

But another important consideration is keeping Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), the only Republican to back any healthcare bill in Congress, happy.

A senior Democratic aide predicted Snowe’s vote for the Finance bill would help Baucus and diminish calls from liberal groups that want Dodd to have more leverage in the meetings with Reid.

The aide said Baucus and Reid could argue that it is necessary to include elements of the Finance measure to ensure bipartisan support on the Senate floor.

Liberal groups want the final bill to resemble the HELP measure more closely. Conservative groups view the bills as hopelessly flawed and hope to kill the legislation altogether.

MoveOn.org unveiled a new television ad Tuesday that criticizes the Senate Finance Committee bill and that will run on national cable stations for one week. It features a former insurance company executive calling the Finance bill a gift to industry.

In the ad, Wendell Potter, who used to work for the insurance giant CIGNA, says: “A bill without a public option, like the Senate Finance bill, might as well be called Health Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act.”

AHIP, the health insurance industry trade association, which released a critical report on Baucus’s bill in the days before the Finance Committee vote, followed up this week with a national TV ad campaign, estimated at over $1 million, that pans the legislation.

A coalition of labor unions, including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers, has launched a print advertising campaign against Baucus’s bill. A print ad appearing in national and Capitol Hill publications calls the Finance bill “deeply flawed,” according to a union source. The ad calls for Congress to pass a government-run insurance plan, which it says would “lower premiums for everybody and reduce the cost of health reform by $100 billion.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce began running a television ad Thursday in 13 states assailing tax increases in the various Democratic healthcare proposals.

“Now Congress wants $300 billion in new healthcare taxes,” says a narrator in the ad. “Taxes the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says you’ll pay … increasing healthcare costs for businesses and working families.

“It doesn’t make sense. Let’s stop the healthcare tax. Let’s make healthcare affordable, not more expensive.”

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Groups such as Working America and Healthcare for America Now (HCAN), a coalition of liberal groups and labor unions, plan to intensify grassroots campaigns.

HCAN is in the midst of a $1 million television advertising campaign that is running on MSNBC and local broadcast and cable stations in Maine, Philadelphia and Minneapolis. The coalition has planned grassroots action days for Oct. 20 and Oct. 29.

The AFL-CIO made its big push on Capitol Hill last week, sending 100 representatives to meet with lawmakers and staff and deliver more than 40,000 letters calling for reforms such as the public option. The union will team up with HCAN to organize the grassroots lobbying activities scheduled for later this month.