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The Senate health care vote Saturday got the floor debate started, but it pushed the tea party movement closer to the boiling point. Grass-roots activists aim to turn the pressure on fence-sitting Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
Senate Democrats got the bare-minimum 60 votes needed to start debate on the health care bill. Sixty votes will also be needed when the Senate decides to end debate and move to final passage. That may be hard, especially as public opinion continues to sour on a health care overhaul. A Monday Rasmussen poll found that 56% of respondents oppose President Obama's health care plan; just 38% support it, the lowest yet.
Heat from tea party activists could make it even harder.
"Activists were a little bit frustrated by the procedural vote on Saturday," said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns at conservative FreedomWorks. "But they do realize that this battle has just begun in the Senate. I expect activists from around the country to communicate to the three or four senators on the fence how they feel."
Landrieu, Nelson and Lincoln have all expressed concern with the public option, the bill's cost and abortion language. (Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., caucusing with the Democrats, has said he will oppose any bill with a public option.)
By Tuesday, Landrieu's main phone had a recorded message saying the answering machines were full before clicking off.
"Responses from Louisiana (on Saturday's vote) have been mixed," Aaron Saunders, a spokesman for Landrieu, told IBD via e-mail.
While Landrieu is not planning on spending the holiday getting a clearer picture of the public reaction, she will hold a fundraiser with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Democratic strategist James Carville in New Orleans on Dec. 12. She can expect protesters.
"There is a group of us going down there," said Bob Trost, a director on the board of the Southwest Louisiana Tea Party. "How many, I don't know yet. It just came up."
The Gift Of Landrieu
Ahead of the vote, the media reported that Reid had included $100 million in new funding for Louisiana to win Landrieu's support. The senator quickly retorted that that was false.
"It's not $100 million. It's $300 million, and I'm proud of it and will keep fighting for it," Landrieu said.
Since then, bloggers and activists on the right have dubbed her decision to back her party the "Louisiana Purchase."
"I didn't think she'd vote to move to debate," Trost said. "I think she will vote for the final bill."
That sense of resignation is common among tea party protesters.
"Nelson's vote on Saturday was telling," said Sheila Heieck, director of the Omaha chapter of the conservative Americans for Prosperity. "Nelson has said he thinks the bill is bad, but it's just a dance he's doing. He's going to vote for it."
Heieck was protesting outside Nelson's Omaha office Tuesday. The weather was cold and rainy, and the turnout was about 30. Tuesday protests have become routine and will continue for the foreseeable future.
Nelson's office was guarded when discussing the response to his vote. Spokesman Jake Thompson said they were receiving many calls and e-mails both for and against the bill "and that remains ongoing." Nelson was being kept abreast of the response.
Thompson declined to say how many responses were positive or negative. "We do not give out numbers on comments to the senator's offices," he said.
Nelson had three or four public events in Nebraska on Tuesday. Thompson declined to characterize them or the public's tenor.
"They weren't health care events. That's all I have to say," he said.
Lois Kenkel, also an AFP member who was at the protest, expressed frustration.
"We've been to his office dozens of times asking him not to vote for this bill, sent him thousands of e-mails and signed petitions," she said. "We're not sure it is making a dent in what Nelson wants to do."
Lincoln is the most at risk, with tepid poll numbers ahead of next year's re-election bid. Last Friday night, over 150 tea party protesters showed up for a candlelight vigil in front of her Little Rock office.
"We plan on having more like those in the future," said Bob Porto of the Pulaski County Tea Party in Arkansas. "On Dec. 19, we'll be having a town hall discussion with the candidates for U.S. Senate. Senator Lincoln will be invited."
Porto was unable to give a location, but he did say state Sen. Gilbert Baker, Col. Curtis Coleman and Conrad Reynolds, who plan on running against Lincoln next year, will attend.
Lincoln spokeswoman Leah Vest DiPietro also reported receiving a flood of "passionate" responses on Lincoln's vote. "The majority of Arkansans have told Senator Lincoln that they want health insurance, but they have very different ideas about how to achieve it," she said.
She added: "There is general concern from constituents about spending and increasing the size of government."
Lincoln has held at least two public events this week, though neither was specifically devoted to health care.