Dems acknowledge healthcare missteps

Senate Democrats say their effort to win healthcare reform is in stable condition despite some lost momentum.

The majority party in the upper chamber acknowledges a sometimes-sputtering communications strategy to pass President Obama’s signature domestic initiative, which has staggered in the face of relentless Republican attacks and last week’s blow from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which said it would not reduce healthcare spending.

Some Senate Democrats said their work could have been better coordinated with House actions, while others grudgingly acknowledge the impact of GOP attacks.

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Democrats are just as quick to say, however, that the setbacks are only temporary and that the issue should be judged taking a longer view. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Wednesday said a pre-recess vote in the Senate likely won’t happen, but that will only be a temporary setback.

“We’re going to take a little longer to get it right,” Durbin told The Hill when asked about the oft-stated goal of a vote on or before Aug. 7, when a monthlong Senate recess begins. “Initially we had hoped for a full vote by then, but I don’t think it’s going to be possible.”

The best hope for Democrats is for the House to approve a bill before its recess, scheduled to begin at the end of next week, and for the Senate Finance Committee to complete its work. That could still be tough, since conservative Democrats have complaints about the House bill and Finance has struggled for months in closed-door talks.

Finance is now expected to unveil its bill next week, but it must still be combined with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee version, approved by that committee a week ago.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who took over the HELP Committee in the absence of ailing Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), said the drive has “momentarily” stalled, but predicted eventual passage.

“These things move back and forth,” Dodd said. “The CBO thing hurt, because the CBO doesn’t score savings, but tell that to the family that’s losing their home and going into bankruptcy because of healthcare costs. Does the CBO score that? But we’ve got time to do this, and it’s not a question of convincing the public of the problem.”

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 leaders are putting out to support it.

He said Democrats must improve their coordination. He noted that the HELP Committee’s passage of its health bill was all but overshadowed by the House’s introduction of its bill at the same time.

One bright area, Casey said, was the fact that media ads will be running to bolster the Democrats’ case for reform. 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 debated.

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But Casey 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.”

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 Republicans in both chambers have ramped up their attacks.

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.

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

“I wouldn’t say we lost momentum, I would say it’s just been up and down,” the aide said.

Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) suggestion that a healthcare reform defeat would be Obama’s “Waterloo” helped Democrats by firing up their base, the aide suggested.

“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.”



Alexander Bolton contributed to this story.

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