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August is time for health care talk

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ST. PAUL - August is the time when children try to forget they are about to head back to classes, families rush to fit in last-minute vacations and members of Congress, this year at least, think about health care.

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Most members of the Minnesota congressional delegation plan to spend part of their month-long break talking to constituents about proposed health-care reform legislation.

For example, Sen. Al Franken, who sits on a committee that deals with health care, will tour the Mayo Clinic. Rep. James Oberstar plans late-August meetings with health-care providers, advocates for the uninsured, labor unions and employers about the issue. Rep. Collin Peterson plans a trio of health meetings.

"It is kind of driven by what people are talking about on talk radio, cable news shows and so forth," Peterson said.

Congressional leaders had promised to pass a health-care reform bill before their August recess, pressed by President Barack Obama, but it proved too complicated a task, given economic and other issues in Washington.

In a pre-break White House meeting Tuesday, Obama urged 57 Democratic senators to stick with him on health-care legislation.

"We are not really ready to negotiate with ourselves," Franken said Obama told the group.

Although Obama praised Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is pushing for a change in the Obama plan, the president did not endorse any change. Conrad wants health-care reform to include a cooperative-type insurance plan instead of one run by the federal government.

For now, at least, Franken is sticking with Obama, although he admitted Minnesota has had lots of success with cooperatives, ranging from those dealing with ethanol to electricity to sugar beets.

Peterson likes the concept.

"That could be where we end up, with a Conrad co-op idea as an alternative to the so-called public plan," Peterson said.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Obama left the door open to changes, saying the health-care plan is a work in progress.

Klobuchar said she is happy to have the August recess to look at the proposal because it needs work to keep costs down.

"I don't mind that it is taking awhile," she said. "We have to get it right."

August traditionally is the time when federal lawmakers return home to take the temperature of their constituents on federal issues. The House recessed Friday; the Senate plans to work this week before taking its break.

While lawmakers do take time off during August, their official schedules still will be busy.

Take Franken, a Democrat in office slightly more than a month.

"He'll be traveling to just about every corner of the state meeting community leaders and city officials about local economic issues and new projects in Minnesota," said Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh. "He's hosting a couple of roundtables to hear from key constituencies on the health care reform debate, meeting with leaders in the agriculture community, touring the Mayo Clinic and other Minnesota businesses and institutions, and, of course, the State Fair."

That is typical of what other offices reported.

Rep. Eric Paulsen, an Eden Prairie Republican, plans his 10th telephone conference forum of the year. He also will hold meetings with police, health officials, educators, senior citizens and businesses this month.

Klobuchar plans to visit 20 counties, listening to Minnesotans on any subject, but also will hold some specific meetings such as on agriculture programs.

Oberstar, a Chisholm Democrat, returns to work today, giving a transportation speech at the University of Minnesota and holding a state Capitol news conference.

As House transportation chairman, Oberstar plans to tour several transportation projects funded by federal economic stimulus money.

Rep. John Kline will be busy at forums hosted by chambers of commerce and other civic groups and colleges. He also will host an education roundtable and meet with his agriculture advisory board.

Franken said he plans to seek public input into the health-care debate, but also will let people know what Obama's proposal contains. Beyond that, however, he wants to hear about Minnesotans' economic condition, including that of small businesses.

The senator, in office a month, said he held three health roundtables in the past week and attended others before that.

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Members of Congress differ on holding public forums open to all topics.

Peterson last week received considerable publicity for his comment that he does not hold public meetings on all topics because they may get hijacked by extremists.

"You get the same issue that shows up," the Democrat said in an interview. "It doesn't help what I need to do."

Oberstar also targets his meetings to specific topics.

But public forums Kline hosts always are open to all comers and all topics, spokesman Troy Young said. So far this year, Kline has hosted some "telephone town hall meetings ... where thousands of constituents participate," Young added.

Peterson holds topic-specific meetings, like three he plans on health-care legislation this month. "I find it a much more effective use of my time."

One of Peterson's health-care meetings will be in Alexandria with a consortium that is coordinating health-care delivery. Peterson said that existing system is similar to Conrad's co-op proposal.

He also plans general health-care meetings in Bemidji and Willmar.

Such meetings will sway his vote, Peterson said, "in this case where I am not as much of an expert as I need to be."

Peterson has been swamped with legislation in his Agriculture Committee.

"We have got most of our work done," he said of the committee he leads. "It has been like drinking out of a fire hose since I have been chairman."

He still could have Agriculture Committee-related work to do when Congress returns to Washington in a month.

While Peterson tried to ease the impact on farmers from a global climate change bill, he said he would vote against it if it does not change more. If the Senate passes a similar bill, Peterson will be involved in negotiations.

He also could be involved in a final version of a proposal to change regulations of some financial dealings, but it is not certain senators will act on the measure.

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