Health care demonstrators converge on Bean's office
By Joseph Ryan and Kimberly Pohl
Horns wailing from scores of motorists passing Woodfield Shopping Center in Schaumburg Tuesday afternoon couldn't drown out a battle of chants erupting from the throngs of activists.
"Kill the Bill!"
"Fulfill the Bill!"
At least 500 demonstrators stood three and four deep along Woodfield Drive to yell, wave signs and even don Uncle Sam costumes to make their stance on health care reform clear.
Those opposed to President Barack Obama's health care reform and their signs - "We've hit Barack bottom" - intermingled with those supporting the landmark push - "Health care for America now" - in an effort to get their message to the nearby office of the undecided U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean of Barrington.
The streetside protest is just one of the more public examples of the pressure facing suburban lawmakers, whose offices also have faced the wrath of robocalls and heard hundreds of personal pleas in daily phone calls.
With a final House vote on health care reform legislation nearing, the intensity of the debate is mounting.
Most lawmakers already have declared a position. Suburban Republicans like Judy Biggert of Hinsdale, Peter Roskam of Wheaton, Mark Kirk of Highland Park and Don Manzullo of the Rockford area remain firmly in the 'No' corner.
Most Democrats representing parts of Chicago as well as U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston are expected to make up the base of the 216 votes their party needs for passage.
But it is Bean and freshman U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of Batavia who remain on the fence, and therefore are drawing the most attention from both Democratic leaders and average residents.
Both voted for health care reform with a public insurance option in November, but they now say they want to see the final legislation before committing.
In Foster's district and Washington offices, the lines have been jammed with health care calls, so much so that those who phone in are greeted by a message redirecting inquiries on the contentious topic.
"It concerns us when a whole lot of people from Texas or California are calling and our constituents can't get through," said campaign spokeswoman Shannon O'Brien.
O'Brien said the offices are receiving about 200 calls on health care a day from people who live outside the district. Another 100 calls come in daily on the topic from people who live in the district and O'Brien says the number of supporters and opponents is "mixed."
O'Brien says leadership in the House has been slow to urge Foster for support so far because the legislation is not yet complete, but she says attention from other lawmakers may increase as the week comes to an end and a final vote nears.
"I think he has established himself as more of an independent guy," O'Brien said.
The local attention Foster has faced has been particularly acute as Republicans view his seat as a potential flip this year. Before he won in 2008, the far West suburban seat was held by GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Foster faces Republican state Sen. Randy Hultgren of Winfield Township and Green Party candidate Daniel Kairis of South Elgin in the general election.
The Republican's campaign arm has paid for thousands of robocalls into Foster's expansive district _ calls suggesting the lawmaker may vote for a measure that will kill jobs and increase the costs of health care.
But Foster has had some help as well.
Late last year he got a boost in the form of a TV ad thanking him for voting for health care reform in November. The ad was paid for by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.
Both Bean and Foster have dealt with street protests on both sides of the issue for months.
Still, for now, the two say they haven't made up their minds on the final vote.
Bean says she wants to see protections for small business, insurance pooling for those companies and patient choice considerations in the final draft.
Foster is not looking for one particular element of the measure, O'Brien said, but wants to see how it will come together on balance.
"He is not really sure how he is going to vote. He doesn't know what it says," said O'Brien, adding that the congressman was declining interviews until the legislation was released.
Bean says the pressure doesn't bother her. She also is facing it from the White House, having been called into a meeting with Obama earlier this month as a representative of the New Democrat Coalition, which views itself as moderate.
Bean characterized the meeting as more education than arm-twisting.
"(Obama) said something to the effective of, 'You see my cholesterol is up, so literally, health care is killing me,'" Bean recalled.
As far as pleas from other Democratic lawmakers, Bean said "most of my colleagues have learned that doesn't work with me."
To be sure, Bean and Foster are not the only suburban lawmakers taking public heat on health care.
Kirk's district recently has been the target of robocalls from a pro-health care reform group. Kirk is making a run for Senate on a moderate platform.
Biggert's office in the West suburbs was protested last month by a couple dozen activists who tried to stage a sit-in and leave behind shoes to represent those without health insurance. Her office also receives about 200 calls and e-mails a day on the issue.
Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to get in front of the issue locally, shaping the debate as a battle against government intervention and massive spending.
Roskam held a conference call with reporters Tuesday to raise questions about how much the legislation will cost Illinois' financially-strapped state budget in additional Medicaid spending.
"It is in fact welfare," Roskam said of Medicaid, which subsidies care for the poor. "And it is the expansion of welfare and it is not a good base on which to move forward."
Obama took issue with Roskam at last month's summit on health care for using the term "welfare."
Meanwhile, challengers to Bean and Foster are working to make sure those who oppose health care reform know where the lawmakers stand.
Bean challenger Joe Walsh of Winnetka said Tuesday, "I think it will be an issue right up to Election Day. I think the angst, the fear, the outrage, the concern is so large - it is so great."
Bean also faces Green Party candidate Bill Schuerer of Lindenhurst.
Foster opponent Hultgren kicked off his primary campaign last year railing against Obama's health care reform push and has characterized it as a "government takeover" of the industry. Hultgren said Tuesday that "voters will not forget in November" Foster's early support for the legislation.
In the end, whether it is on the streets near Woodfield or at a future campaign stop, passion is expected to remain high and unceasing. Supporters and opponents have clearly filled their respective corners.
"We're going to go bankrupt if something doesn't change," said Palatine resident Valerie Ihara in supporting reform at Tuesday's demonstration.
Opponent Eric Dudas of Naperville argued otherwise. "It'll be a moot point," he said, "because this bill will make the country insolvent and then nobody will have health care."