White House signals allegiance with centrists on major healthcare points

White House officials have subtly steered healthcare negotiations over the most controversial disagreements between the Senate and House in favor of Democratic centrists.

Through selective media leaks, White House advisers have let it be known that President Barack Obama does not support the House in some of its biggest disputes with the upper chamber.

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Among the most important issues, Obama’s advisers have told reporters the president made clear in a meeting with House leaders last week that he supports the Senate proposal to place a 40 percent excise tax on high-cost insurance plans.

Administration officials also leaked that Obama took the same stance in a meeting with labor union presidents, who staunchly oppose the idea, during a meeting Monday. 

Healthcare negotiators reached a tentative deal on the excise tax on Thursday but details have yet to be released.

White House officials have also told news organizations that the president supports the Senate plan to create a commission to recommend Medicare spending cuts, a proposal that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has opposed. 

Anonymous Democratic officials have signaled that negotiators are ready to discard proposals from the House such as a 5.4 percent surtax on the nation’s highest earners and a requirement that large employers provide coverage to employees or pay new taxes.

White House officials have indicated support for some House measures, such as creating an insurance exchange on a national instead of a state-by-state basis and expanding the Medicare payroll tax to cover the investments of high earners. But these issues are considered less significant than the excise tax, employer mandate and Medicare savings commission.

At the same time, White House spokesmen have distanced Obama and his senior advisers from media reports.


“The reports you’re reading from anonymous sources are at best educated guesses, and at worst ill-informed or wishful speculation,” a White House spokesman said in a statement to reporters earlier this week.  

Late last year, the administration quietly accepted the demise of the public option, a proposal to set up a government-run insurance plan, which the House passed but centrist Democratic senators opposed.

Some Democratic lawmakers think the more centrist version of healthcare reform approved by the Senate is what Obama and his circle have wanted from the start.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said it would be inaccurate to say that centrists such as Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are solely responsible for the move away from many priorities favored by liberals.  

“This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place, so I don’t think focusing it on Lieberman really hits the truth,” Feingold said of the Senate bill last month. “I certainly think a stronger bill would have been better in every respect.”

Feingold made his statement after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decided to abandon the public option and a proposal to allow people over the age of 55 to buy Medicare coverage.

Democratic strategists note that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has played a central role in healthcare negotiations. On Wednesday, Emanuel spent hours in the room negotiating with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

During his tenure as a Democratic lawmaker in the House, Emanuel was known for having a more centrist policy outlook than liberals who made up much of the Democratic caucus.

Emanuel, who served as chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee and the Democratic Caucus, clashed with liberal colleagues at times by pushing for the protection of vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts. Most notably, Emanuel helped block an effort to take up comprehensive immigration reform in the House, fearing it could hurt centrist Democrats at the polls.

Political strategists allied with Democratic centrists say that the Senate bill would garner more support among independent and conservative Democratic voters.

“The Senate bill would be more popular, as far as Arkansas goes,” said Robert McLarty, a Democratic political strategist based in the state. “We’re not your typical progressive Democrats. Our state is saturated with a lot of Blue Dog Democrats who are more conservative on these types of issues.”

“Based on what I know about the bill, it seems to lean toward gaining support from independents,” he said of the Senate version.

Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said the Senate bill could help Democrats win back independent voters who have begun deserting the party in recent polls.

“In a lot of the areas of concern to independent voters the Senate bill is just better — cost containment and the overall price tag of the bill,” he said.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found that Obama’s approval rating has dropped steadily because of eroding support from political independents, especially independent male voters.

The poll found that more than six in 10 independents disapproved of his handling of healthcare.