Divide And Conquer: The GOP’s PsyOps Strategy To Scare Shaky House Dems Off Health Care Reform

March 12, 2010 7:51 a.m.

Senate Republicans are running out of options. As Democrats inch closer to passing health care reform, the GOPers in the upper chamber have realized they can’t rely on the procedural tricks they have at their disposal in the Senate to stall or derail the process because all of the action is in the House.

So their latest plan to derail the reform legislation is more devious: Senate Republicans have embarked on a rhetorical scorched-Earth strategy about the political perils of passing health care, to sow the seeds of doubts in the minds of House Democrats in the hopes that they lose their nerve and sink the bill.

Call it Congressional psy-ops.All week, Republicans have been dropping “friendly” words of warning to House Democrats. At their weekly press availability Tuesday, Republican Senate leaders gave it the hard sell.

“[W]e believe that what the president is doing is asking House Democrats to hold hands, jump off a cliff, and hope Harry Reid catches them,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). “And Senator Reid’s not going to have any incentive to catch them because by the time the reconciliation bill gets to the Senate, the president will have already signed the health-care bill into law, and he’ll be well on his way to Indonesia.”

In other words, now that House Dems have to pass the Senate bill verbatim and rely on the Senate to amend the bill through reconciliation, they do so at their own peril. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) drove that point home.

“[T]he House is going to be asked to vote on a Senate-passed bill with a promise that they will cure some of the things the House members don’t like in a reconciliation bill, and send it back here,” Thune said. “So you’re asking House Democrats, conservative Democrats, who have voted for this in the past to vote for it again when many of them would like not to vote for it again, and ask those who voted for it last time to stay with them. And I think that they’re going to be in a real — they’re going to be hard pressed in the House to try and convince a lot of these House members that this is a good vote for them when their constituents are telling them otherwise.”

But that wasn’t the first time Republican senators had made the argument. A week before the GOP leadership brought out their top budget guy, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), to sound the following warning about reconciliation. “So there — it’s — it’s going to be a very — it’s going to be a very difficult exercise, I suspect. And I think that House members who are relying on reconciliation to correct concerns they have with the Senate bill should think twice.”

And, on top of that, at a March 7 National Republican Senatorial Committee briefing, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) warned House Democrats: “There is no guarantee at all that the bill will be fixed in a way that accommodates their particular concern. And in fact if you’re the White House why in the world do you care whether reconciliation passes at all once you’ve got the house to vote for the Senate bill, once the president signs that into law.”

Cornyn went on:

There is no rationale other than keeping promises to the House members but with an administration which has made so many promises on health care which has not been meet, I think there’s great risk that the White House would embrace the House passage of the Senate bill and then forget about reconciliation and forget about those Democrats in the House who vote for it and walk the political plank.

It goes on and on. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s even gotten in on the game.

By the end of the week, Republicans were more or less candid about the strategy. Gregg basically admitted to the divide and conquer strategy to Huffington Post. “Absolutely,” Gregg said. “We are trying to open the eyes of our colleagues on the Democratic side who are being solicited with goodies that the boat into which all these goodies are being put may not ever come to dock.”

That is why Republicans have been insisting they’ll do whatever they can to stall, and disrupt–and even sabotage–the reconciliation bill. Not because of their objections to the items in the reconciliation bill itself, but to scare House Dems into killing the big comprehensive Senate bill.

Which raises a separate, but important, question. If their psy-ops fail–if the Senate health care bill passes and it’s game over–will the GOP still carry through with their plans? Vote against popular measures–like closing the Medicare donut hole, and ending the cornhusker kickback–out of spite? Or is this all purely a head game?

Late update: Asked about the GOP strategy, House Democrats hit back hard. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), chair of the Education and Labor Committee’s health subcommittee told me he welcomes the GOP’s attention. “We would hope the Senate Republicans would be the messengers of why people should oppose this bill. It’s the sort of Jim Bunning philosophy…Jim Bunning’s kind of the example of the way they see the world. We don’t see it that way. So for those who oppose the bill, we would welcome Jim Bunning to be their spokesman.”

And Doug Thornell, spokesman to DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen, says it’s a sign of GOP panic. “The cocky, arrogant threats coming from Republicans are a lot like taunts you’d hear from an insecure bully on the playground. The fact is, they haven’t won much of anything in four years and it is because they make decisions based on short term political gain, not what’s in the long term interests of the country. This cynical strategy on their part is exactly what has kept Washington from reforming our health care system for decades.”

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