As health care reform enters its do-or-die stage in Congress, union leaders on Tuesday began threatening that they will work to 'take out' Democratic lawmakers who vote against the bill.
In a set of fiery speeches outside a private health insurance lobby gathering on Tuesday, a group of prominent labor and progressive leaders excoriated industry executives, calling them everything from "dark titans" to "domestic enemies."
It was feisty rhetoric that riled up a crowd that organizers put at more than 5,000 who had gathered to demonstrate outside the America's Health Insurance Plans' annual summit in Washington D.C. But an even more compelling discussion was taking place, literally and figuratively, backstage.
In a series of conversations with the Huffington Post, many of labor's leading voices pledged to launch a massive, arm-twisting effort to help persuade skeptical lawmakers to pass health care legislation into law. And in addition to their traditional ammunition -- from email campaigns to town hall events -- talk also centered on exacting electoral revenge against those who end up voting against reform.
"I hope this sends a message to Congress," Gerald McEntee, president of 1.6-million-member AFSCME, told the Huffington Post. "I think we have to demonstrate that we are not going to stand aside, that we are going to take them out if they don't help us at all."
In private, union officials seconded and applauded McEntee's aggression, saying that the labor community was buoyed by the reaction to Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's entrance into the Arkansas Senate Democratic primary. There was discussion of other unions following the AFL-CIO's lead in making independent investments in support of Halter's candidacy. And several aides enthusiastically pointed out that Sen. Blanche Lincoln's (D-Ark.) opposition to making changes to the health care bill through the use of reconciliation already seems to have softened since a primary challenger emerged.
"Isn't it amazing what happens when you get a little opposition?" one top union official asked with a smirk.
The take-on-the-Dems ethos didn't end with Arkansas. Other union leaders said they were exploring whether to invest in other potential primary battles or, by extension, sit out the elections of those Democrats who don't come through on reform. More immediately, some leaders threatened to essentially make life miserable for lawmakers who let the process draw out.
"We are going to be calling and calling members in the days ahead," Anna Burger, Secretary Treasurer of the SEIU and Chair of Change to Win, told the Huffington Post. "And if they leave before the recess and haven't done anything, they are going to get absolutely hounded at home."
"Accountability is very important," she added. "For too long, too many members have done one thing in D.C. and gone home and acted like they cared about the people in their states when they don't."
The threats, both veiled and unveiled, reflect the frustration of the labor community in the year-long course of crafting health care reform. As it stands now, officials aren't yet fully comfortable with health care reform's legislative language and remain in intense negotiations about making policy changes through reconciliation. But the community remains intensely invested in passage and appears willing to target members it traditionally supports. While union leaders on Tuesday made a big effort to castigate the insurance industry outside their meeting, in private they were knee-deep in the inside game of getting reform through Congress.