Aug 6, 2009 34 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
Top White House aides gave Senate Democrats a recess battle plan on Thursday, arming the lawmakers with tips for avoiding disastrous town hall meetings while showing them polling on popular aspects of the reform effort.
Senior White House adviser David Axelrod and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina told senators to focus on the insured and how they would benefit from â€œconsumer protections” in the overhaul, such as ending the practice of denying insurance based on preexisting conditions and ensuring the continuity of coverage between jobs.
They showed video clips of the confrontational town halls that have dominated the media coverage, and told senators to do more prep work than usual for their public meetings by making sure their own supporters turn out, senators and aides said.
And they screened TV ads and reviewed the various campaigns by critics of the Democratic plan.
â€œIf you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard,â€ Messina said, according to an official who attended the meeting.
The hourlong session was the last opportunity for Democratic leaders and the White House to prepare senators for what will be a crucial month in shaping public opinion on health care. With no final legislation to promote, senators have expressed concern about dealing with questions and criticisms about the almost $1 trillion overhaul. The spate of confrontational town hall meetings have raised the stakes.
â€œThey are just helping us understand the fringe that is trying to mess up our meetings,â€ said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Senators were urged to zero in on the insured, who need to be convinced that there is something in the bill for them. â€œThe next five weeks is about closing the sale with the insured population,â€ Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said.
Axelrod and Messina also presented polling that showed the insurance reforms were popular with women and rural residents.
â€œThere is unprecedented insurance reforms â€” things that have never been done,â€ said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a member of the Health, Energy, Labor and Pensions Committee, which approved its health care bill last month. â€œIn our committee, we had to vote, and 10 Republicans voted against all those insurance reforms â€” every single one of them. Not many people know that but if I have anything to do with it, they will know it.â€
The Senate Democratic caucus meeting followed a sitdown earlier Thursday at the White House between President Barack Obama and the six Finance Committee members who have been trying to negotiate a bipartisan bill.
The president urged the group to continue work on a compromise, but it also discussed the possibility of Democrats going it alone if the talks proved fruitless.
“If Republicans aren’t there, it could get to the point where sometime after the recess. … Democrats may have to go in a different direction,” Baucus said. “I hope not, but we have to face facts.”
But, he added, “I don’t think it will become a reality.”
The six senators met for about an hour with Obama and discussed policy issues including the expansion of Medicaid. For part of the meeting, they kicked their staff members out of the room, Baucus said. The group includes Baucus, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Olympia Snow (R-Maine).
“He encouraged us to continue with the effort and we talked about what policies are better than some others, and how we should keep working through the August recess,” Baucus said. “We may reach a point though where have to take stock when we get back. At that point, if things are going great, fine. If not then we may have to go in some other direction.”
Snowe said they told Obama there would be no hiatus in their talks through the break, and they agreed to assess their progress in September.
â€œHe is concerned about timelines throughout the fall,â€ Snowe said. â€œAnd he didnâ€™t issue, frankly, any timelines, which I think we also appreciated. He understands there needs to be flexibility, but he obviously knows that time marches on. So he just wants to see what the standing will be at that point so he knows how to proceed himself in moving forward.â€