LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The week after passing landmark healthcare reform and handing President Barack Obama an important victory, members of the U.S. Congress returned to their home districts for a recess to face constituents and justify their votes after the bruising legislative battle.
While Obama made flying visits across the country to tout the new legislation, a number of key Democrats, who led the charge for healthcare reform, seemed to keep a low profile and are doing little to beat the drum.
Republican lawmakers, however, made quick plans to harness what they see as voter discontent over the issue — either by lambasting those Democrats who may be politically vulnerable or by shoring up their own shaky campaigns with criticism of “Obamacare.”
While healthcare reform was thought to be a defining issue in congressional elections, many experts believe it may lose steam by November and prove less important for voters than unemployment and the economy.
Before public anger over healthcare fades, Republicans from veteran senators to freshman congressmen were racing to get their message out at the outset of the two-week spring recess.
Representative Dan Lungren, a California Republican running for re-election in a district carried by Obama in 2008, planned to tell his constituents that healthcare reform is important, but Obama’s overhaul was not the way to fix the ailing system.
“Too much costs, too much taxes, too much government, too much debt,” Lungren told Reuters. “It’s another typical over-promise by the federal government. It’s not going to go away and its not going to be the sole issue in the election but it’s the best example of the direction this president wants to take the country.”
Arizona’s Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, facing a stiff re-election fight, sounded similar themes as he campaigned in Tucson with 2008 running-mate Sarah Palin.
“Obamacare is, quote, ‘historic.’ They’re right, it’s historic. It’s the first time in history where a major piece of legislation has been passed over the overwhelming objection of the majority of American people,” McCain said to cheers.
“It’s historic that it is also the first time on a pure partisan basis a major piece of legislation has been passed. It’s going to be historic, because it’s going to be repealed and replaced, and it’s going to be done soon,” he said.
On the other side of the political divide, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who fought for a year to muster the votes in his own party, had no plans to speak on healthcare during the spring break, his staff said.
Conservative Tea Party activists held a rally Reid’s hometown of Searchlight, Nevada and the senator welcomed them to town as a boost to the local economy.
“I don’t think he feels like he needs to counter (the rally), it’s part of just educating people on what’s in health care,” said Tom Brede, Reid’s Nevada-based spokesman.
Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who initially secured federal funding for his state to cover the cost of Medicaid expansion in the controversial “Cornhusker Kickback,” also had nothing related to healthcare on his agenda.
Though the “Cornhusker Kickback” was stripped from the final healthcare deal, conservative activists are hoping disgruntled voters will help them drive Nelson out of office.
In Michigan, Representative Bart Stupak, who led a group of Democratic anti-abortion holdouts who threatened to derail the bill, only to ultimately support it, issued a statement saying that an executive order signed by Obama represented an “iron-clad commitment” to ban federal funding for abortion.
Stupak had no events planned over the recess to discuss healthcare.
First-term Democratic Representative John Boccieri of Ohio, seen by some as vulnerable in November, explained in a release that he voted yes because “the bill may not be perfect but it strikes the proper balance.”
Political analysts said Republicans needed to tread carefully now that healthcare overhaul is a fait accompli or risk being painted as the “party of no” by Democrats.
“My assumption is that this is going to wash out. It’s just not going to be that central (to the election). If anything, it might turn out to be a net plus for the Democrats,” said Joel Aberbach, director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.
That ‘net plus” could come into play in California, where public opinion favored an unsuccessful state-level healthcare initiative pursued by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007.
California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer is facing the hardest re-election battle of her career and she could cash in on her party’s victory on healthcare.
Her website hails the healthcare overhaul as an “historic achievement and a victory for our seniors, our children, our small businesses and for California.”
“I fully expect that Boxer will use (healthcare reform) in her arsenal as something that she will run on rather than run away from,” Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said.
“In other states this issue could be toxic to incumbent Democrats. I don’t see that as much here in California.”
Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Andrew Stern in Chicago, Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Mary Milliken and Chris Wilson