Lobbyists Follow Members on the Road

Posted March 26, 2010 at 5:38pm

Lawmakers returning home for their spring recess won’t be able to escape the burning issues on Capitol Hill. That’s because many Washington, D.C., interest groups will continue their lobbying fights on financial reform, gays in the military and the new health care law back in Members’ districts.

Gay rights groups will be taking their campaign to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the road, holding 26 events in states represented by key Senators.

The monthlong tour kicks off today in Lincoln, Neb., the home state of Sen. Ben Nelson (D), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has remained noncommittal on whether he will support a repeal.

Sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers United, the events will also hit the states of other undeclared Democrats on the panel, including Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jim Webb (Va.) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.).

“The small minority that supports keeping this law on the books has been very vocal, so we need to get the overwhelming majority that support repeal to start standing up in their local communities, speaking out and demonstrating that this is going to be a safe vote to take,” said J. Alexander Nicholson, the executive director of Servicemembers United. He added that the lobbyists will be using the break “to squeeze in as many meetings as possible with Congressional staffers here in D.C. in order to get them briefed on the nuances of the latest developments regarding the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ issue.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which led the business effort against the Democratic health care law, will be using the break to reinforce its opposition to the financial reform legislation that will be considered by the Senate when lawmakers return in April.

The chamber has launched a media campaign that includes national television, radio and online ads criticizing the current legislation while supporting alternative measures.

“We’re taking our call for bipartisan, balanced legislation to the states during the Congressional recess, underscoring with the American people that we need financial reform that protects consumers without stifling job growth,” said David Hirschmann, president of the chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness.

The chamber specifically opposes the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which it argues will create another burdensome bureaucracy. The House bill would create a consumer protection agency as an independent entity, while the Senate version would put the agency within the Federal Reserve.

The chamber, however, is lobbying for a less powerful Consumer Protection Council to ensure coordination of regulatory and enforcement actions among federal regulators.

The major unions, which devoted a considerable amount of time to pushing health care reform across the finish line, are also now focusing on other issues, including jobs and financial reform.

The AFL-CIO will be holding 200 events around the country that will target six Wall Street banks that it argues helped trigger the financial collapse. The union is hoping to mobilize grass-roots support for the current financial reform legislation and pressure banks and business groups to drop their opposition to the measure.

But even as they pivot to other issues, unions and groups that supported the recent health care overhaul will continue to try to bolster Democratic lawmakers who are likely to face criticism back in their districts.

The AFL-CIO is sponsoring 50 airport “thank you” events for lawmakers who voted for the bill as well as attending town halls for Members to offer vocal support.

Other groups believe they still have a lot of explaining to do to ensure the public understands the health care law, which much of the public remains confused and skeptical about.

“We’ll be ramping up one of the largest educational campaigns in our history,” said David Allen, a spokesman for AARP, the senior citizens group that backed the bill. “We’re ready to use all of our communications channels to make sure Americans get the objective information they need.”

Washington, D.C., lobbyist Tony Podesta said that while his health care clients are familiar with the bill, many others are not.

“We represent a lot of non-health-care clients who are calling up and saying, ‘What does this mean for us?'” Podesta said.

The American Medical Association also backed the health care bill, and its officers will spend the recess talking to doctors groups about it.

But the influential medical association is already pressing Congress to address issues not dealt with in the health care package, such as Medicare reimbursement rates for physicians.

“Members of Congress eager to spend a two-week holiday with their families have left America’s military families and seniors to fend for themselves through their inaction on a known threat to the Medicare and Tricare program,” AMA President J. James Rohack said in a statement. Rohack added that at the beginning of April, a 21 percent Medicare reimbursement cut for physicians begins because Congress failed permanently to repeal a Medicare payment formula. Tricare, which covers active duty and retired military, ties its payment rates to Medicare.

Rohack called on those affected to “let their members of Congress know that decisions made in Washington have real world consequences, and that their inability to take permanent action on this critical issue is unacceptable.”

Health care opponents also are expected to keep up their drumbeat against Congressional Democrats. The Tea Party Express, which held a number of rallies in D.C. leading up to the health care votes, has organized a multistate tour scheduled to begin March 27 in Searchlight, Nev., the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), and end on April 15 in the nation’s capital.

The tour will include rallies in numerous states, including Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alabama, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, Massachusetts and New York.

Matthew Murray contributed to this story.