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Team Health Care: Tight White House Group Listening, Guiding As Congress Does Its Work

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White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the team is "looking at different ideas that the group that Harry Reid assembled is putting together."

But offering a glimpse at who remains in control, Gibbs said that Reid "picked folks on different sides of the political spectrum to evaluate how to move us forward in the debate."

The team is multi-layered, with top Obama advisers working the phones and huddling privately with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Cabinet members lobbying governors, White House aides handling the messaging and President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden doing the charm offensive.

(You too can follow the day's movements at our health care wire here.)

The White House insists members of the team are just "listening" and letting Congress go about its legislative work.

Publicly Obama rarely gets down in the weeds to comment on individual parts, reaffirming his broad principles of a bill that increases and makes coverage more affordable, is deficit neutral and creates more "choice and competition."

It's all very broad brush, but the team knows the details.

So, who are they?

Policy wonks

Phil Schiliro, Obama's legislative affairs liaison. He's got a long history as a Congressional aide and knows the ins and outs of every bill that reaches Obama's desk.

Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has a laser-focus on health care as a way to cut overall government spending.

Gibbs said the team is both listening and offering feedback without getting into the weeds on individual policy bits.

But at a recent briefing with the magazine Health Affairs, Orszag detailed several incremental negotiating points.

Negotiators

White House health care czar Nancy-Ann DeParle has been more involved than perhaps any other player. She's in meetings constantly with Congressional leaders and she also has hosted regional community forums and has appeared at the White House to detail how health care changes would affect everyday Americans.

DeParle went out of her way recently to praise Sen. Blanche Lincoln for key policy bits she added to the bill.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor, is juggling the health care bill and the swine flu outbreak.

Several sources said Sebelius is the under the radar player on Capitol Hill, appearing there as often as DeParle and with a sharp understanding of both the legislative process and red-state politics.

Another source familiar with the health care negotiations told TPMDC Sebelius has been traveling all over the country and doing regional television interviews to help sell the plan outside of Washington.

She also frequently meets with senators in Biden's Senate office off the chamber floor.

Sebelius still talks to members of the House and is offering HHS data and policy assistance when lawmakers ask for perspective. The source said she has credibility with the red-state members but also speaks progressives' language. She's also good friends with some of the senators who helped Obama during the campaign.

This fall Sebelius talked to 40 lawmakers in the House Republican Study Committee, taking their questions even though she knew she wouldn't earn their votes.

In addition to spending time on the Hill, both DeParle and Sebelius are calling governors to attempt to earn their support and to work out concerns they are talking about in their home states.

Political hands

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is constantly working the phones on health care, including calls to old House colleagues. He's been on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue repeatedly during the health care negotiations in private meetings with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other members of leadership.

Jim Messina, a deputy chief of staff and known as Obama's political "fixer," has been plenty involved in the health care talks. He worked for the campaign during the general election, but is best known for his role as Sen. Max Baucus' chief of staff. Baucus, of course, had a huge role in crafting the health care bill as Senate Finance Committee Chairman, and has been on the Senate floor all morning defending the measure against Republicans.

As I reported earlier this week, Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) has been a tangential assistant to the health care team, speaking frequently with Obama and also helping with the Senate negotiations.

Dan Pfeiffer has been detailing the health care policy in frequent posts on the White House Web site. Recently promoted to the post, Pfeiffer is an alumni of Daschle's staff.

Pfeiffer's post at WhiteHouse.gov last night reacting to the deal never went out to the entire press corps, instead going to a select group of health care reporters and bypassing the media filter to go straight to the people.

Top lobbiers
Administration aides say often there is no substitute for Obama speaking directly to lawmakers. He's rallying the troops in caucus meetings, gladhanding at the annual White House Christmas party, and making calls, in many cases talking about the historic and political importance of passing a sweeping bill.

He also has privately lobbied members, from Rep. Joseph Cao, the lone Republican to back the House health care bill, to conservative Democrats.

Obama has hosted Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe - whose vote the White House still very much wants - in the Oval Office, along with conservative Democrats Blanche Lincoln (AR), Ben Nelson (NE) and Evan Bayh (IN).

Biden also has a role, taking call lists from White House staff and taking frequent trips to Capitol Hill to work from his office off the Senate floor. He has recorded videos about the fights over health care.

Biden was spotted recently giving a West Wing tour for a Republican senator whose vote he hopes to win.

Orszag also said the bill was in Reid's hands.

"He is managing the movement in the Senate and he is confident he is going to get where he needs to be," Orszag said.

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