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Democrats Try to Reclaim Rx Issue

In an attempt to regain an issue they fear the GOP has snatched away, House Democrats will fan out across the country later this month and host a series of town hall meetings to tell voters why they remain the party to trust on prescription drug reform.

Democratic leaders this week asked the Caucus to begin organizing the sessions in their districts on July 19. They are specifically targeting areas where vulnerable Members could face tough re-election bids.

Just before the July Fourth recess, the House voted largely along party lines to approve a Republican-crafted Medicare reform measure providing a prescription drug benefit to seniors. Democrats pushed separate plans of their own, arguing the Republican proposal didn’t go far enough.

“While we lost a vote on June 27, the fight continues,” Democratic leaders said this week in a “Dear Colleague” to the Caucus.

“And it’s our strong belief that Democrats must take this debate directly to our seniors — perhaps the most politically astute group in America. The best way to do that is through the give-and-take of town hall meetings that individually generate favorable media coverage in your District and collectively generate a pro-active, positive message about House Democrats in the national media.”

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who came up with the idea to hold the town hall forums, said he believes opinions will change as more seniors learn about the Republican plan. Hoyer will be traveling to a marginal Member’s district to help host one of the town hall meetings.

“We think seniors are going to be very upset about the House-passed bill,” Hoyer said.

Democrats argue the House GOP plan has major gaps in coverage, doesn’t provide a defined benefit or premiums and relies too heavily on the private sector for coverage.

But the minority will hardly have the field to themselves. The GOP, led by President Bush, intends to place the issue atop its domestic agenda in the coming elections. “We’re pleased that we were able to strengthen Medicare, but we wish the Democrats luck on the revised history tour,” said Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). “America knows the Republicans have passed a prescription drug benefit for seniors several times, and Democrats have resisted. People are looking for results and not rhetoric.”

“This is clearly our effort to have echo chambers beyond Washington on a very critical issue,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.).

Menendez said Members hope to reveal to seniors what they “aren’t getting” in the GOP House plan. He said Democrats hope that will translate into changes in the legislation, now headed to conference committee.

Democrats say it’s too early to predict how many Members will participate in the effort.

“We hope to keep Members energized around this issue,” Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen said.

Farnen said leaders are working with separate Democratic Caucus factions and have enlisted the help of several outside seniors and labor organizations to help bolster turnout at the events. Among those groups are the AFL-CIO, Fair Tax Coalition, USAction and the Alliance of Retired Americans.

“Unfortunately, President Bush and Congressional Republicans rushed last month to pass a deeply flawed prescription drug benefit that would leave most of the 40 million seniors and people with disabilities in Medicare worse off than they are today,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “There should be no mistake: Republicans Medicare reform plans will begin the unraveling of the Medicare program seniors know and trust.”

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