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Members Head Home ‘on Message’

Having wrapped up their longest uninterrupted legislative stretch of the year, House lawmakers from both sides of the aisle headed back to their districts Friday with instructions to focus on Medicare and economic issues.

Those two themes will make up the bulk of both parties’ recess messages. Republicans plan to stress the coming introduction of Medicare prescription drug cards, the strengthening economy and the need for a national energy policy, while Democrats will emphasize the alleged flaws in the Medicare bill, growing budget deficits and the need for more veterans spending.

“We need a change from the policies that are failing,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said of the Democratic message. “They are failing to create jobs, they are failing to get our economy going. This is jobless economic growth.”

But Republicans believe they have a strong record to promote to their constituents. They are particularly optimistic that the coming introduction of prescription drug cards for seniors will improve the public’s perception of last year’s GOP-backed Medicare bill.

“We’re still going to push hard on Medicare,” said Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio). “We’re getting very close to enrollment. … That will be when seniors finally realize that there really are cost savings available.”

Republicans plan to continue with their strategy of holding educational workshops on the Medicare bill in districts across the country. GOP lawmakers have already held more than 150 such sessions.

“We’re no longer really selling the bill itself, but explaining to seniors how they sign up for drug cards,” said Stuart Roy, spokesman for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Republicans argue that Democrats are worried about the introduction of the cards. Government Reform ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has asked Democratic lawmakers to survey drug prices in their districts now and again this summer, a move the GOP sees as evidence that Democrats are nervous.

Pryce contended that Democrats were doing the survey “just to set it up for a ‘gotcha.’”

She predicted that the Democratic strategy would be unsuccessful, since seniors already know how much prescription drugs cost and “they don’t need [Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] and her crew telling them.”

But Democrats believe that Republicans are trying to distract from their own nervousness.

“Republicans are the ones panicked about this flawed bill that they thought was a ticket to victory in November,” said Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen. “Seniors are seriously disturbed by the numerous scandals and support continues to plummet despite the millions of taxpayer dollars being spent on a political advertising campaign to boost support.”

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said over the past five years the price of prescription drugs has gone up between 16 percent and 18 percent and is projected to rise even more this year. Democrats believe that despite Republican arguments, the card won’t present any real savings because the costs are being inflated beforehand.

“The long-awaited discount card will be akin to a sale at Neiman Marcus — jacking it up before the sale,” Emanuel said.

The Democratic recess package handed out last week encourages Member events to focus on “the real needs of our seniors, veterans and minority communities.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), co-chairwoman of the Steering and Policy Committee, said the recess will give Democrats “an opportunity to talk about who we are as Democrats and who we are as a party.”

On the economic front, Republicans plan to hold district events leading up to April 15 to emphasize their party’s message of reducing taxes.

“That’s always the day Republicans like to dwell on our theme — putting more ‘take-home’ in your take-home pay,” said Pryce.

Republicans will attempt to link their economic message with rising gas prices, placing the blame squarely on Democratic shoulders. They will argue that Senate Democrats — including Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) — have irresponsibly blocked a comprehensive energy bill that would help alleviate escalating fuel costs.

When they’re not pushing their messages, leaders from both sides of the aisle will spend some of the recess on the fundraising circuit.

Pelosi will devote time to raising money for the party, while Hoyer plans to hit the trail for House candidates.

Pelosi takes off Friday for two days of fundraising for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, including stops in Miami, Coral Gables and Fort Lauderdale. She then heads to California, where she will spend time in her district and later hold fundraisers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Hoyer, meanwhile, will spend two days campaigning for Democratic hopeful Stephanie Herseth, who is vying to replace Rep. Bill Janklow (R) in the South Dakota special election in June.

On the Republican side, DeLay and Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) will spend the bulk of the recess in their districts. Hastert will visit Georgia but will not be raising money for any House candidates, while DeLay has no political travel scheduled.

Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), on the other hand, has a full slate of events planned. After spending the first week in his district, Blunt will do fundraisers during the second week to benefit his Rely on Your Beliefs PAC in New Jersey, New York and several California locations, including San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and the Bay area.

While in the Golden State, Blunt will also raise money for Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) and ex-Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who is running in the 3rd district. The Missourian will round out his schedule with a trip to Las Vegas, where he will host events for Reps. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) and John Doolittle (R-Calif.).

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