From Nearly Dead To Nearly Done: How The White House Refocused On Health Care To Finish It Off

The White House

Congressional Democrats say Thursday’s health care summit is likely to clear the final hurdles to passing health care reform – and say that President Obama returning to the issue with a clear focus and a specific health care proposal makes it easier for them to get it done.

Health care reform was in hibernation after the special election in Massachusetts ended the 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, with some even declaring it dead and buried. But over the last few weeks there have been a series of developments that gave new life to health care reform. Democrats say the summit is the final step to securing House and Senate support for a compromise bill that could pass by the spring.

TPMDC has been surfacing where the momentum came from, with Congressional and Washington sources telling us that the White House at first seemed wary about spending political capital on something that was plummeting in the polls and which had wounded the party’s chances at success in November.Since Obama finally put a stamp of his own on a health care plan – a compromise that looks more like the Senate bill than the more progressive House version passed last year – Democrats are saying they can finally move forward and score a political victory.

Among the factors at work helping to revive momentum were the president’s performance at the GOP retreat last month, Republican shenanigans around the invitations to the summit and the massive rate hikes proposed by the nation’s largest insurer. What’s more, Democrats cited polls showing the American people want Congress to press on.

These disparate events came together after a month of legislative limbo, giving the White House the political cover to move forward.

Congressional Democrats have been breathing a sigh of relief because they say finishing health care is the only way to stave off massive losses this fall.

“Not passing a bill means that all the lies the Republicans told about the bills would end up being true in people’s minds,” a House Democratic aide said.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said today she welcomes the steps Obama is taking to lay out his vision of health reform.

“His step in saying, ‘This is the bill that I want here,’ … was a very important one,” Slaughter told TPMDC. She said it was hard for Democrats to explain “to the world what we’re trying to do here,” and all that voters saw was inter-party squabbling.

“Should he have done it before? I don’t think so. I think the most important thing that we did was the negotiations with the Senate to reach consensus between the two houses, because we know we have to carry this bill,” she said.

A Democratic strategist familiar with inner-workings of the White House told me the momentum was reclaimed thanks in part to Republicans. The strategist said the GOP has been saying for a year they find reform necessary, and also called for televised discussions.

But by insisting health care negotiations start over entirely and in some cases suggesting they might not show up, they portrayed themselves as not really interested in bipartisanship after all, the strategist said. The political fight shifted the media’s attention away from the process and the talk of 60 votes – which was hurting Democrats – and puts Obama on higher ground by showing he’s willing to entertain GOP ideas to get it done.

“Now we are able to really focus on putting Republicans in a position where they have to produce ideas and we come off looking like we want solutions and we’re working with them,” the strategist said. “Momentum is derived from that rather than from Senate rules.”

Meanwhile, Anthem Blue Cross in California announced they are raising rates by 39 percent, an issue the White House and Congressional Democrats seized upon. There are hearings tomorrow in the House and the administration has said California’s increases are just a harbinger of what’s to come if reform doesn’t pass soon.

The strategist said the timing of the hikes “really really helped” because it injected a sense of urgency into the debate.

“And it proves what we had been saying because the insurance companies certainly feel like they are able to do whatever they want to do and when they think they’ve killed off insurance reform and look what they did,” the strategist said.

Others said Congress was waiting for Obama to position himself as the final referee between the House and Senate bills. Lawmakers believe that since Obama actually has put himself on the line with his own plan, they will line up to support the final compromise.

The compromise plan is fairly close to what House and Senate leaders negotiated before the Massachusetts election, but Hill sources tell us that it was only after a regrouping period that the White House got back into the fray.

Congressional aides say they think Obama’s team wanted to steer clear of any fallout if the negotiations collapsed and health care died.

Aides said Obama seemed to be showing willpower to go about health care the hard way by giving specific direction to Congress instead of sticking to the broad principles he’d been outlining for nearly a year.

Still, the House remains frustrated with Obama’s team. Policy aides weren’t consulted on the new health care plan and were only briefed by the White House after reporters were walked through the details.

Additional reporting by Brian Beutler

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