Dems seek to unite for recess push

White House officials and Democratic lawmakers scrambled in the final week before the August recess to dispel the notion that Congress has tuned out President Barack Obama in the healthcare reform debate.

July was a bruising month for Democrats, with Congress failing to meet Obama’s deadline for passing healthcare legislation through the Senate and House.

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Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), the Democratic chairman of the Finance Committee, has tossed aside Obama’s proposal to create a broad government-run health insurance program and continues to contemplate taxing employer-provided health benefits, which the president campaigned against last year.

The White House and leading Democrats on Capitol Hill had initially planned on leaving town with a bang by having each chamber pass its respective healthcare legislation. In the wake of the Democratic setbacks, emboldened Republicans have gone on offense and believe they can derail what Obama has called his No. 1 domestic priority.

Still, White House officials say momentum is on their side and maintain that Obama will lead the charge on revamping the nation’s healthcare system.

“In the past two weeks the president has probably spent a third of his time on healthcare talks, speaking to members of Congress in person or on the phone,” Nancy-Ann DeParle, the director of the White House Office of Health Reform, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

By contrast, in March, April and May, Obama was spending much less time on healthcare, DeParle said, estimating “a few hours a week.”

Obama has invited members of the Gang of Six, three Democrats and three Republicans who are leading talks on the Finance panel, to the White House for a meeting on Thursday morning.

And amid growing questions about Obama’s ability to lead Congress, the president invited the entire Senate Democratic Conference to the White House on Tuesday to discuss healthcare.

After the meeting, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) defended Obama’s leadership on healthcare and bristled at the notion that the president has become a passive observer.

“The president has been involved in this from the very beginning,” said Reid. “Anyone that thinks President Obama and his people have not been involved in healthcare reform haven’t followed what’s going on.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t talk to several people in the White House about healthcare reform and the same applies to the two [Senate] chairmen.”

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel last week swooped in to break an impasse over healthcare legislation within the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Rahm helped to put together that healthcare deal in the House,” said Baucus. The deal allowed the panel to pass a bill before the House recessed for August.

There is little doubt inside the Washington Beltway that administration officials are engaged with the Democratic-controlled Congress on healthcare, but there are some Democrats worried about the perception outside the Beltway about the missed legislative deadlines.

The bottom line is that Obama asked Democratic leaders to deliver this summer, and they fell short of that goal. Those stumbles and constant finger-pointing led to unflattering headlines across the country of a fractured Democratic Party.

Some Democrats have called on the president to be more vocal about the potential benefits of Democratic policy ideas, such as reduced healthcare spending as a result of promoting healthy habits.

“For some reason, I don’t hear [Obama] saying it that much anymore and I’m imploring the people around him at the White House that he’s got to start talking about this,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told Radio Iowa last month. “People want to be healthy. They don’t want to go to the hospital.”

A Senate Democrat who has complained about the slow progress on healthcare reform said that Tuesday’s lunch was intended to show that the president is taking control of the healthcare debate.

Obama will hold a town hall meeting to discuss healthcare reform in Portsmouth, N.H., next week.

Last week he held events in North Carolina and Virginia to discuss the soaring cost of healthcare and the need for reform. The president devoted his weekly address on July 24 to health insurance reform and held a healthcare event with AARP a few days later.

The flurry of activity in the past two weeks is a striking change from the early summer and spring, when the administration seemed content to let Congress take the lead.

“The administration made a decision long ago, and I think rightly so, not to send a specific legislative proposal [to Congress],” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the Finance panel who has participated in Gang of Six talks with Baucus and Republican lawmakers.

“Instead, they decided to set overall goals and say [to Congress], ‘It’s your responsibility,’” he said. “I think they were wise to do that.”

 As a result, Conrad said, the Finance Committee negotiations over what is expected to become the core of healthcare reform have been confined to lawmakers, with “the administration involving themselves when they think appropriate.”

But while that hands-off approach has built up good will with centrist Democrats, such as Baucus and Conrad, and Republican negotiators, such as Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Olympia Snowe (Maine), it has prompted some grumbling from liberal Democrats.

Liberals are not happy that Baucus has taken so long to produce draft legislation. The failure of the Finance Committee to report a bill is a big reason why the Senate failed to meet Obama’s August deadline.

“I’m not happy with the slowness there,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said last week.

Emanuel and DeParle have served as the administration’s point people in congressional healthcare negotiations.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has participated in many public events and held nearly 30 meetings with various members of the Senate and House since.

But it is Emanuel and DeParle who have served as the principal liaisons with Baucus, who represents Democrats’ best hope of attracting Republican support for a healthcare reform package.

“I’ve been talking with Nancy-Ann. I talk to Rahm. Rahm’s the chief of staff; I talk to Rahm often,” said Baucus. “Sebelius is helping, she’s all part of the team, but I talk more to Nancy-Ann.”

DeParle said she talks to Baucus “once or twice a week” but emphasized that she and Sebelius work together closely.

“Every morning at 7:30 I place a call to Sebelius,” she said.

“Secretary Sebelius has been working hard to enact health insurance reform since day one,” said Nicholas Papas, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “She will continue to work closely with the administration and leaders in Congress to help enact the insurance reforms we need.”

Yet administration officials have not participated in the pivotal Finance Committee talks.

“This is a discussion among just the six members [of Finance]; we’ve not had any representatives of the administration,” said Conrad.

However, the White House is expected to play a larger role in final healthcare negotiations between the Senate and House in the fall. Liberal lawmakers certainly expect Obama’s aides to become more engaged.

 “The president was right to let the committees put their own bills together but he needs to get involved now,” said a senior Senate Democrat, who asked for anonymity to avoid appearing critical of Obama.