WASHINGTON -- The armies of "tea party" conservatives who packed town-hall meetings last month to oppose President's Obama's $1 trillion government healthcare plan are bringing their protest movement to the Capitol Saturday to urge its defeat.
Those who thought the hundreds of April 15 tax-day rallies across the country were a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon had better think again. It is a grassroots movement that has been gathering strength ever since, fueled anew by pending bills in Congress to enact a historic expansion of the government's power over the nation's private healthcare system.
The tea party's march on Washington will come three days after Obama went before a joint session of Congress Wednesday to rescue his trouble-plagued healthcare plans from a deeply divided Democratic majority in the House and Senate that threatens the centerpiece of his domestic agenda and perhaps the future of his presidency.
But if you listened to the president's partisan, campaign-style Labor Day speech to a union crowd in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Monday, you would have come away thinking that the Democrats aren't the problem -- it's the Republicans who are blocking his plan. Not only are they blocking it, Obama says; they are blocking it without proposing any alternatives of their own.
This will come as news to House and Senate Democratic leaders who are having trouble winning the necessary votes in their own party to bring a bill up for a vote, despite huge majorities in both chambers.
In fact, Republicans have put forth plans that would broaden insurance coverage among the uninsured and bring down medical costs, too.
Like what? Well, like allowing self-employed individuals to deduct the costs of healthcare-insurance premiums from their taxable income, just as businesses and their employees are allowed to do now; providing added tax incentives and regulatory relief that would encourage small businesses to offer plans to their workers; and offering needed tort reform (which is nowhere to be seen in the Democrats' bills) that contributes mightily to escalating healthcare costs and has driven many doctors from their field.
To say there are deep divisions among congressional Democrats over the president's call for a fully subsidized government-run health-insurance system that would unfairly compete with the private-sector plans (and put many of them out of business) is like saying the Grand Canyon is a large hole in the ground. House Democrats are intent on a public-run plan, despite fears from many in their caucus over its atmospheric costs. But in the Senate, Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Finance Committee, has drafted a bill that leaves out the public option entirely. In its place will be quasi-private, nonprofit insurance cooperatives that would be ostensibly created with one-time federal start-up funding, but that most likely would go on forever.
Thus, the White House faces the perilous prospect of two legislative trains hurtling down the track toward each other -- the public-option plan from the House and the nonpublic option in the Senate.
But there is more at stake in these competing bills than just the public option. There are costly mandates on the insurance industry. Americans who are uninsured will be required to obtain coverage. Small businesses will be required to offer it. New taxes, fees and penalties will be levied. The government's entry into the healthcare industry would be huge, harmful and all encompassing.
Well, the American people have had a lot to say about all of this over the past month as they stormed hundreds of town-hall meetings to voice their grievances. Most Democratic lawmakers were unmoved, a number of them turned against their party's plan, and some took cover and canceled town meetings altogether.
But most got the message that the president has lost the support of a majority of Americans for his signature issue.
Now come the tea-party protesters to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in a show of force being billed as the largest conservative gathering in memory.
A Tea Party Express caravan of buses has been slowly winding its way across the country from the West Coast to the East Coast on an ambitious 17-day, 34-rally tour where thousands have turned out to join the protest movement. Organizers say that between 25,000 and 50,000 demonstrators are expected to gather in Washington to demonstrate their opposition.
"The healthcare issue and the town halls have truly galvanized them and brought everyone together. The people coming out to our rallies believe very firmly that they (the administration) are trying to shove this down people's throats," Levi Russell, spokesman for the Tea Party Express, told me.
Three big things are happening in all of this. The president and his party are getting a needed lesson about overreaching. The Republicans' once-fractured base has found its voice again. And participatory democracy is alive and well in America.