Democrats’ attempts to coordinate health-care message leave Republicans scratching their heads

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama’s attempt to press ahead with a comprehensive health-care bill on Monday prompted one reaction in Washington more than any other: confusion.

“I was actually surprised that they’re pushing it again. The most important thing is jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. We need to focus on jobs,” said Rep. Heath Shuler, North Carolina Democrat and a leader of the 54-member Blue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats.

Shuler, speaking to The Daily Caller on his way out of a meeting of the Democratic caucus on Monday evening at the Capitol, expressed the sentiment that is increasingly common in Washington, the reason so many are scratching their heads at Obama’s insistence on trying to pass a catch-all piece of legislation.

“I don’t think a comprehensive bill can pass,” he said.

“I hate to use a football analogy,” said the former Washington Redskins quarterback, “but first downs are a lot better than throwing the bomb route or the Hail Mary.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, gave a sharp rebuttal to Shuler’s remark.

“You know what? With all due respect to everyone, we just saw the president’s proposal today. I don’t know that anybody in our caucus is saying we’re not going to pass a bill,” she told The Daily Caller as she left the caucus meeting.

“We will pass a bill. We will pass a bill,” she said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, knocked down the idea that the president’s proposal represented a product that all Democrats were supporting unquestionably, undermining the White House argument that Republicans must unite behind one proposal before Thursday’s meeting at the White House.

“I’m not sure there is a ‘this bill.’ We have a bill. The Senate’s got a bill. The president has put a proposal on the floor. We’re going to talk on Thursday,” Hoyer said in an interview on his way out of the meeting.

Hoyer said Obama’s proposal “represents certainly a lot of things that we wanted to see changed in the Senate bill” but said he was “still concerned about affordability.”

“The president’s bill — he really doesn’t have a bill — but the proposal, we’ve got to see what the dollars are but certainly we think it moves in the right direction and improves upon what the Senate did,” Hoyer said.

Given the severe obstacles in the way of any bill passing through either chamber at this point, especially given the political climate in the country, Republicans were left to guess what the White House strategy might be.

“Far more interesting than the substance of the new proposal … is trying to understand what Team Obama is trying to do with it,” wrote Keith Hennessey, a top economic adviser in the Bush White House, on his blog. “I struggle to understand how the president’s new proposal is relevant to any serious attempts at legislating if he cannot deliver either House or Senate Democrats in support of it.”

For all the talk of pushing a bill through the Senate through reconciliation and with only a 51-vote requirement, the biggest challenge for Democrats may be the House, where Democrats already need to make up one vote to get to their 218-vote threshold, and could face the prospect of conservative Democrats who voted for the bill the first time defecting out of fear for their political future.

“I can’t figure it out. They took a bad bill and made it worse,” said a senior Republican Senate leadership aide.

The Obama proposal – the first actual specific offer by the president in the more than year-long debate – left the Senate bill largely intact but removed a few of the provisions that were most politically unpalatable and added new government powers to regulate health insurance rates.

Obama’s plan does not include a public option, which fails to win over liberal lawmakers who voted against it the first time for that reason.

“I voted against it when it didn’t have a public option. Without a public option there’s nothing to talk about,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, in an interview.

Obama adopted the same language on abortion as the Senate bill, which would alienate another block of pro-life Democrats.

For example, a spokesman for Rep. Daniel Lipinski, Illinois Democrat, who opposed the Senate bill because of its abortion language, said he opposed the president’s plan for the same reason.

Hennesey speculated that the White House, Senate Democrats and House Democrats might each be pushing forward with their own plans so that when reform falls apart they can say they worked as hard as they could but were stymied by a lack of effort from the others in the face of Republican obstructionism.

Even former President Bill Clinton appeared pessimistic about the prospects for health-care reform.

“The health care is hard to do, but I thought it would happen this time because all the trends that prompted me to act are worse,” he said, speaking about health care reform in the past tense during an interview with Fox News. “I thought it would happen, but …”

House leadership aides cautioned against counting them out and said they were even optimistic that the political environment is better now for moderate Democrats on the fence than it was in November when they first passed a bill out of the House.

“It’s too early to look at votes,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “It’s a question a lot of people are asking but it’s premature to judge the final product and how we’re going to move.”

House Democrats will meet again as a caucus on Tuesday at noon to discuss the president’s proposal in more detail. They have not yet begun to count to see if they have enough votes for a bill, an aide said.

Rep. Charlie Rangel, New York Democrat, said he was trying to remain optimistic, though he indicated that this was the last chance Democrats would have to try to get something passed.

“All I’m thinking is positive thoughts,” Rangel said. “We don’t have as many options as we did before. This is the last time out. This is it. This is it.”

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, made the case that the recent uproar over a proposed 39 percent insurance rate hike in California by Anthem Blue Cross – which has since been postponed due to political pressure – was going to turn an angry electorate back toward Democrats.

“People are going to change their minds when they realize that they may not have liked government intervention in their health care but they’re sure not going to like their HMOs starting to tell them once again how to run their health care and not get anything in return, and there’s no protections for them when they get ill,” Kennedy told The Daily Caller.

“So all of a sudden, what didn’t look so good initially – our efforts to protect them – are going to start to look better and better as time goes on,” he said.