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Activists mobilize for busy August on immigration, Obamacare

Candidates hold U.S. flags during a naturalization ceremony to become new U.S. Citizens at Convention Center in Los Angeles, California Febr
Candidates hold U.S. flags during a naturalization ceremony to become new U.S. Citizens at Convention Center in Los Angeles, California Febr

By Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - August might not be much of a recess for U.S. lawmakers weary from bruising budget fights and nomination showdowns: the break promises a frenzy of meetings in their home districts with activists trying to pressure them on immigration and health care reform.

Progressives, Tea Party conservatives, the business and faith communities and other interests have spent weeks - and in some cases months - planning for the five-week break that begins Friday when lawmakers return to their home districts.

In addition to attending "town halls," or open meetings that lawmakers will be holding for voters, many advocacy groups will stage events and protests of their own across the country.

The activity is aimed at what promises to be one of the stormiest fall sessions of Congress in years, with partisan showdowns likely over government spending, Republican efforts to defund the health care reform law known as "Obamacare" and comprehensive immigration reform, all on the eve of the 2014 mid-term election season.

Congress is going on its break after an acrimonious couple of weeks that featured clashes over the budget, student loan interest rates and nominations put forth by President Barack Obama for key jobs.

The intensity of mobilization is a tribute to the effectiveness of Tea Party-dominated town halls in 2009 that featured bitter debates over Obama's push for health care reform legislation.

Thanks largely to YouTube videos that went viral, the town halls had a national impact, far beyond the districts where they were held.

Since then, what were once low-key, routine meetings between members of Congress and constituents have become in some cases highly organized political events aided by coalitions of national organizations.

Dick Durbin, the No. 2 U.S. Senate Democrat, said that on immigration reform, his party is determined to avoid a repeat of what happened to health care in August 2009.

LESSON FOR DEMOCRATS: 2009 TOWN HALLS

"We're not going to leave a void here. We're going to fill this with our message and we're going to do it in a very forceful, positive way," Durbin said.

He and Democratic Senator Tom Harkin are planning an event in Harkin's home state of Iowa on Friday in the district of Republican Representative Steve King, a staunch opponent of immigration reform.

The conservative group Heritage Action has announced a "Defund Obamacare Tour" to include events in nine cities headlined by Jim DeMint, a former senator and Tea Party favorite who is now president of the Heritage Foundation think tank.

Also participating in the tour will be Rafael Cruz, father of Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who is calling for the withholding of funds from Obama's signature health care law.

Immigration reform supporters, ranging from the National Council of La Raza to the Service Employees International Union to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also view August as a critical time for fate of the immigration reform effort.

Though a broad immigration bill passed the Democratic-led Senate by a wide margin, its chances are bleak in the Republican-led House of Representatives, which is considering a series of piecemeal measures but has made little progress.

"This is the beginning of a long, hot summer for the House of Representatives," said Eliseo Medina, international secretary-treasurer of the SEIU.

The SEIU, La Raza, America's Voice and other groups that are part of a coalition called the Alliance for Citizenship plan to be active in the districts of 52 lawmakers, with 360 events. One events will be a car caravan across Northern California that will end up in Bakersfield, the home district of Representative Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking House Republican.

McCarthy is a particular target of immigration supporters because his district includes a large number of Latino voters and has a local economy that depends heavily on agriculture.

On Thursday, activists sought to get a jump on the August recess with a protest on Capitol Hill against House Republicans for moving too slowly on granting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. About 30 activists were arrested.

Opponents of the immigration reform effort are also busy organizing for the recess.

NumbersUSA, which favors lower levels of immigration, is encouraging its network of some 2 million activists to attend town halls and send faxes and emails.

But Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, said he believes there's a lot of "hype" around the August recess that has been in part built up by the pro-immigration groups.

"This may be their only chance" to build momentum for immigration reform, Beck said.

He added that he didn't think it would work. Beck said he believes many Republican lawmakers may hold fewer town halls, in part to avoid the heated immigration issue, or may decide to hold "telephone town halls" instead of in-person gatherings.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Fred Barbash and Doina Chiacu)

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