WASHINGTON (CNN) - As Democrats on Capitol Hill prepare to unveil landmark bills to dramatically overhaul the nation's health care system, the White House and the Democratic National Committee are mounting increased efforts to rally public support around the idea.
On Saturday the DNC's advocacy arm, Organizing for America, is sponsoring thousands of meetings across the country in which it says tens of thousands of activists will discuss how to change the system, will hear a message from President Obama encouraging their activities, and will be recruited to engage in other activities that will be held throughout the summer's "campaign for healthcare reform."
In the message, the President says after decades of trying real reform is possible, in part because some groups who have never worked before are now joining together. “But the most important seat at the table belongs to you. To get this done, I need your voice to be part of the debate, and it needs to happen now,” he says, according to an excerpt of his remarks obtained by CNN.
In March, the group sponsored a canvassing effort and collected hundreds of thousands of pledges of support for the administration's budget bill. It's also mounted an effort to support the president's Supreme Court pick, Judge Sonia Sotomayor. This effort, though, will be the most sustained to date on a key agenda item for the president.
Activists on all sides are gearing up for a crucial few months. The first public outlines of a bill could be unveiled within the next week, and the Senate Finance and Health, Education and Labor panels are trying to pass measures by the end of the month. President Obama has asked both the House and Senate to act before the August recess.
"The most powerful way to break through that noise in Washington is for millions of ordinary people to speak up and say you demand health care reform now and to explain why it matters so much in your lives. So right now please add your name if you too support the three core principles I’ve laid out for health care,” Obama says in the address. Those core principles, he says, are controlling costs, guaranteeing choice and guaranteeing care.
So far, the White House is leaving the drafting of the specific bills to Congress, although administration officials are in close contact with members and their aides. This week, in a letter to two key committee chairmen - Sens. Edward Kennedy and Max Baucus - the president backed the idea of offering a new government insurance option. The idea would be one of the most contentious elements of any potential package, since many Republicans have said they oppose that concept.
Republicans have come up with their own health care proposals that emphasize choice, and say this weekend's efforts will not help build a widespread consensus.
"There is a bipartisan effort that could be made here that could result in broad based support for real changes in our health care system that the American people want. I would like to be part of that. Lots of Republicans would do too, but we we can't get through the door to be really part of this discussion," said Rep. Roy Blunt, who heads a House GOP health task force. "Activating the grass roots effort from the campaign is one way to keep your campaign effort alive. It is not a particularly effective way to create a bipartisan solution to an important problem."
As the first legislative action on the issue nears, interest groups involved in all sides are expected to ramp up their efforts. Conservatives for Patient Rights, which is pushing for less government involvement and is led by former Columbia/HCA executive Rick Scott, just launched a new $1.1 million campaign. Health Care for America Now, a coalition of groups pushing for major reform including a government insurance option, says it will soon release new ads and is is planning on bringing 5,000 to Washington on June 25 to lobby about 300 members of Congress.
The White House and Democrats are looking to build momentum that would allow them to push through the tough roadblocks ahead by emphasizing the economic costs of inaction. The DNC says it is collecting real-life examples ofproblems with today's system and will use them to help build public support for change. "We are going to be getting out these stories and putting a real face on the need for health care reform. we are going be showing these stories to elected members," says Jeremy Bird of Organizing for America. "We are going to be publicizing them in every single way we can. and our volunteers will be out there talking about the stories."
In a conference call last week with OFA volunteers, the president tried to rally supporters. "I think the status quo is unacceptable, and that we've got to get it done this year. If we don't get it done this year we're not going to get it done," he said.
(updated 7 pm Friday with additional quotes)