Dems make recess push over energy, healthcare agenda

For a man who isn’t sick, Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) spent a lot of time in hospitals last week.

As part of his four-day healthcare tour, he visited three hospitals and attended an AARP meeting in Tupelo, Miss.

Vulnerable members like Childers left for the Memorial Day recess with the strong urging of leaders to focus on issues like healthcare and energy in order to lay the groundwork for a long summer of debate about how to rein in climate change and overhaul the nation’s healthcare system.

But he wasn’t the only one. Seeking to turn the focus of Congress away from the debate over CIA briefings to their ambitious policy agenda, House Democrats held almost 300 events on healthcare and energy during the recess.

It wasn’t always comfortable. Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), a leader of the centrist Blue Dogs, found himself at a local library fighting suspicion of “socialized medicine.” The Thibodaux Daily Comet reported that many of the physicians and hospital administrators criticized the cost of Democrats’ plan for universal coverage.

“I want constructive suggestions that I can bring back to Washington,” Melancon told the group. “This is not about socialized medicine. I will say that as many times as I need to.”

But those kind of confrontations are what leaders expected and wanted. The fight is only going to get tougher, aides said, and if they’ve made the case at home, centrist members are more likely to stay on course in hearing rooms and on the floor.

Leadership offices armed lawmakers with packets of talking points and rebuttals for constituents who came in complaining about “cap-and-tax” and “government-run healthcare.”

“We can sit here in Washington making these arguments, but they have to go home and make these arguments,” said a Democratic aide. “Nobody advocates for Congress but Congress.”

Republicans put their energy into three summits to criticize the Democrats’ cap-and-trade plan for dealing with climate change. Held by the House GOP’s American Energy Solutions Group, the summits were held in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and San Luis Obispo, Calif. They featured House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) and Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).

But the GOP put its money into keeping Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) feud with the CIA in the headlines.

The National Republican Congressional Committee launched a campaign of radio ads and robo-calls in conservative districts represented by Democrats. Not all the targeted Democrats were vulnerable, though. One of the 11 members targeted for the calls was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Six Democratic districts got radio ads, including that of Blue Dog leader Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota.

Pelosi has stumbled during the CIA controversy, refusing to take questions as she prepared to leave for a China trip. Democratic aides say they’re confident that the CIA episode will soon fade, pointing to previous Republican attempts to use Pelosi to drag down centrist Democrats, such as a failed attempt to dub gas-price increases the “Pelosi premium.”