Dems insist health reform is in stable condition

Senate Democrats are openly acknowledging their party’s push for healthcare reform has lost momentum due to poor messaging, but insist they can recover in time for a pre-recess vote.

The majority party in the upper chamber describes a sputtering behind-the-scenes communications strategy to pass President Obama’s signature domestic initiative, staggering slightly in the face of relentless Republican attacks and last week’s blow from the Congressional Budget Office.

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Senate Democrats are just as quick to say, however, that the setbacks are only temporary and that the issue should be judged in a longer view. Notably, several senators also give positive predictions that the oft-stated deadline of a vote before the August congressional recess can still be met.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who took over the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in the absence of ailing Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), said the drive has “momentarily” stalled, but predicted eventual passage “because people out there want it.”

Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), a HELP Committee member, said the party is “a little frustrated” because attacks against the bill seem to be getting more traction than the publicity that leaders are putting out to support it.

During the debate over immigration reform in 2007, Casey said one reason the bill eventually failed was because there was no “parallel strategy” of media advertising to support the bill while it was being considered. He predicted that could change if Democratic leaders and the White House step up their promotional efforts this time.

But Casey, who discussed strategy with other Democrats during the party’s weekly caucus lunch on Tuesday, also lamented the fact that too few Americans know that the HELP Committee bill passed last week would prohibit insurance companies from rejecting patients because of pre-existing conditions. If that aspect were better-known, Casey said, the bill would have far more public support.

"We could do a better job of getting the message out," Casey said. “We need to do more.”

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) won’t say whether the momentum has stalled, instead joining those Democrats who say the issue is too important to judge in such a narrow context.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said the same but also said the GOP risks a severe backlash from voters if reform eventually falls short.

“It’s not going to play well with the American people,” Manley said. “This [GOP] is a party that is lacking an agenda and leaders, and they’re desperately trying to claw at this. They have no ideas.”

Both the Republican National Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have launched multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns in recent days against the Democratic bills, and this week in particular in the Senate the Republican Conference has ramped up its attacks against them. GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has spoken on the topic on the Senate floor 25 times in recent weeks.

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In the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) hedged Wednesday when asked about a healthcare vote before the August recess, though Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was confident the party had the votes to pass it.

Yet party leaders are struggling in the lower chamber, with the House health plan facing strong opposition from fiscally conservative Blue Dogs over its cost and Obama being forced to personally lobby wavering Democrats.

Timing hasn’t been on Democrats’ side in either chamber, with last week’s announcement by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that the House bill won’t deliver the cost savings that leaders have been predicting.

One senior Senate Democratic aide described the issue’s trajectory as “up and down.”

“I wouldn’t say we lost momentum, I would say it’s just been up and down. For every CBO score, there’s been a ‘Waterloo’ comment, which I would say has been good for us. For every attack ad, there’s been something like the HELP Committee vote. So it’s been both good and bad. If this was the Tour de France, it would be a single stage.”

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) this week stated that healthcare could be Obama’s “Waterloo,” referring to the battle that stopped French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. In a sign that that comment has indeed cost Republicans at least a small measure of public good will, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) on Wednesday refused to endorse DeMint’s choice of words.

“I wouldn’t say it that way,” Alexander said of the comment.