House Dems set up healthcare ‘war room’

House Democratic leaders have set up a healthcare “war room” to help their rank-and-file members navigate a tumultuous August in which they find themselves on the defensive on their signature issue.

The effort is being run out of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) office, but is being manned around the clock by a rotation of leadership and key committee staff members, according to leadership aides.

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Although the war room, or “healthcare hotline,” is primarily designed to give members the ability to get immediate health policy answers and updates from leadership offices, top Democrats are also planning to use it to help their colleagues respond effectively to political and press attacks, if necessary.

“The news is being monitored very closely,” a leadership aide said in describing the various functions of the healthcare hotline.

Democratic leaders have more or less opted to operate as if the House were still in session and keep in much more regular contact with the caucus.

In fact, even the war room itself is only one part of an aggressive internal communications strategy that House Democrats are embracing during their August recess, which is usually a time when party leaders loosen their grip on the majority of their members.

But this is far from the usual August.

In addition to lacking a last-week-before-recess triumph on a major bill that Democrats can tout back home, this August has Democrats deeply divided over what healthcare reform should look like, with liberals in the House threatening to block President Barack Obama’s top priority if doesn’t include a “robust” public option to compete with private health insurers, and conservative Blue Dog Democrats still skeptically eyeing the concessions they won from leaders.

With more news accounts of Democratic town hall meetings being met with angry and even violent anti-healthcare protests, the bolstered communications plan is designed to help members respond to such negative coverage and push ahead with a message that is designed to resonate above the chants of protesters.

At the same time, House leaders are looking to receive constructive feedback on just how upset core constituents in various districts are over healthcare reform, as leadership staff in Washington starts looking at different ways to stitch together three healthcare bills into one package for a vote on the floor this fall.

Hoyer and other leaders will be staying in constant contact with Blue Dogs and other centrists, as well as with the progressives. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who serves in leadership as the assistant to the Speaker and as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, will be making daily calls to freshman and sophomore members, leadership aides said.

“There will be constant calls, once a day at least,” a leadership aide said of calls to members. “And e-mail will be nonstop.”

The number of caucus conference calls will slowly increase as well, aides said.

While Democrats need to defend certain members and keep in close contact — if not remain in negotiations — with many others, they also said they do not want to let the overall healthcare message get lost in response.

“We are still pushing, district by district, for members to bring this conversation directly to their constituents,” a leadership aide said. “We’ll do whatever we can to facilitate the successful passage of healthcare legislation in September.”

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