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Battle over Obamacare coming to Florida, Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: August 2, 2013 at 07:06 AM

TAMPA ญญ- Advocacy groups allied with President Barack Obama who favor his Affordable Care Act -- the health care reform plan known as "Obamacare" -- are organizing a grass-roots offensive to boost support for the plan and attack Republican opponents.

The effort will concentrate on 10 states, including Florida. One of the top targets is likely to be Sen. Marco Rubio, who has taken up the cause of opposing the Affordable Care act, threatening to try to shut down the government if it's not reversed.

Their campaign will include discussion groups, press events and demonstrations to "hold Republicans accountable" for seeking to deny Americans the benefits they say the act provides. That may include attending Congress members' town hall meetings in their districts during the August recess.

One of the battlegrounds will be Tampa.

The day before the pro-Obamacare organizations announced the effort Tuesday, Heritage Action for America, a political action group affiliated with the conservative Heritage Foundation, announced a "Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour" for the month of August, including an Aug. 21 stop in Tampa.

That's exactly the kind of event the pro-Obamacare forces expect to target, said Jackie Lee, former Florida field organizer and strategist for both of President Barack Obama's campaigns in Florida. Lee will head the pro-Obamacare effort in Florida.

"If they come to Tampa, you will see us there," Lee said. "We want to make sure people getting benefits from the act will go and ask these guys why they want to take them away."

The plans evoke the memory of Democratic Congress members who supported passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and were caught unprepared during recess town hall meetings by tea party opponents, who in some cases shouted them down. At an infamous Aug. 6, 2009, Tampa town hall meeting held by Rep. Kathy Castor, some 2,000 opponents bused in to the event clashed with security guards, leading to minor violence.

The goal of the pro-Obamacare groups is to "talk directly to the American people about how Obamacare is helping them and their families, and to hold Republicans accountable" for ending those benefits and "putting insurance companies back in charge" of health care, said Brad Woodhouse of Americans United for Change in a conference call with reporters Thursday.

He noted that the Republicans who dominate the House were expected to hold their 40th vote repealing Obamacare today, producing a bill expected to die as the previous ones have in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"It's absolutely stunning that as support for repeal continues to decline ... Republicans make it the only thing they want to do in Congress," Woodhouse said. "They don't give a damn about infrastructure, they don't give a damn about a path to citizenship, don't give a damn about background checks for guns, or education in their states."

Lee could potentially generate a powerful grass-roots network. The Obama campaigns she worked in recruited some 500,000 volunteers, by their own accounting, and produced a voter turnout effort Republicans acknowledge was unprecedented in Florida history.

The Affordable Care Act won't be as inspirational a cause as Obama's election, but Woodhouse said it's generating more popular support as people learn of the benefits it provides.

The public attitude in polls is still ambivalent at best, however.

A common result has been that people disapprove of the law even though they also favor some of its provisions, including prohibiting insurance companies for denying coverage due to pre-existing health conditions; allowing young people to stay on their parents' family coverage plans until age 26; and closing the "doughnut hole" in prescription drug coverage under Medicare.

A recent poll by the health care research group Kaiser Family Foundation found Americans disapprove of the law by 43 percent to 35 percent -- but those disapproving included 8 percent who say it doesn't go far enough. An April Kaiser poll showed 31 percent favored cutting off funding for the act, with 58 percent opposed.

Woodhouse said support will increase when the law fully takes effect, providing tax breaks to help lower-income people to buy health insurance.

He promised an "aggressive, take-no-prisoners response" to "make Republicans pay a price" for seeking to kill those benefits.

"Bring it on!" he wrote in an email about the Heritage town hall tour plans.

Rubio plans to support a proposal for a federal budget that he says would fund all parts of the government except Obamacare. He has said he'll oppose a continuing resolution to keep the government operating unless it complies but added that he intends to "shut down Obamacare, not the government."

"If Republicans are not willing to draw a line in the sand on Obamacare, then what issue are we willing to draw a line in the sand on?" he said on a conservative talk show this week.

He says the law will cause individuals to lose the health insurance they have and prevent them from consulting their current physicians and will put a burden on small businesses.

Rubio's spokeswoman said the senator will be having events around Florida this month, but his schedule isn't final.

"Obamacare is unpopular because it's bad for Florida - and no political campaign orchestrated by the White House will change that fundamental fact," said spokeswoman Brooke Sammon.

A Heritage Action spokesman said the Aug. 21 event in Tampa will include Heritage President Jim DeMint and Rafael Cruz, father of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a freshman Republican who has become a hero to tea party Republicans.

DeMint, an influential leader of the conservative movement, was an early backer of Rubio, but the two clashed over Rubio's support this spring for an immigration reform plan. Since then, however, Rubio has sought to repair relations with conservatives by taking hard-line stances on Obamacare, opposing raising the debt limit and promising to sponsor tough anti-abortion legislation.

The states chosen by the pro-Obamacare forces include several political battleground states -- Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

But Eddie Vale of Protect Your Care said on the conference call the list included "states where we have a number of supportive Democratic members, and Republican targets we want to make examples of."

Gov. Rick Scott has been a leading antagonist of the health reform law, although he advocated expanding the state's Medicaid program under the law; the Legislature refused to do so.

wmarch@tampatrib.com

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