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Dem campaign chief: Medicare for All price tag 'a little scary'

The House Democrats’ new campaign chief on Tuesday poured cold water on the progressive Medicare for All plan, dismissing it as just “one idea” out there and warning that its estimated $33 trillion price tag was “a little scary.”

“The ‘Green New Deal’ is an idea. ‘Medicare for all’ is an idea. But there are many others that are out there,” Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosMaloney to lead Democrats' campaign arm Democratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (Ill.), the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said in an interview with The Hill.

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“What do we have — 130 million-something Americans who get their health insurance through their work? The transition from what we have now to Medicare for all, it’s just hard to conceive how that would work. You have so many jobs attached to the health care industry.”

“I think the $33 trillion price tag for Medicare for all is a little scary,” she said.

Various projections have concluded that the bill, which is formally backed by 107 House Democrats, would cost the government $32 trillion to $33 trillion over 10 years. Proponents of Medicare for all, including Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks Sanders says he can't support bipartisan COVID-19 relief proposal in its current form Progressives push for direct payments to be included in COVID-19 relief deal MORE (I-Vt.) and other 2020 White House hopefuls, maintain that the bill would reduce overall health care spending and save consumers significant out-of-pocket costs.

Bustos, who worked in the health care industry for a decade before she was elected to Congress in 2012, said she had no objection to debating and holding hearings on Medicare for All, which will happen in the coming months. But she also cautioned that Democrats should be “proportionate” when talking about health care. 

“The vast majority of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives want to see us fix the Affordable Care Act and make it functional,” she said, “so we can protect people with pre-existing conditions and so people have affordable health care.”

A former journalist from the Quad Cities area, the 57-year-old Bustos is a key moderate voice in a Democratic Party that is lurching left on issues like health care and government job guarantees, while celebrating the rise of democratic socialists such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezProgressives push for direct payments to be included in COVID-19 relief deal Rubio and Ocasio-Cortez spar on Twitter: 'Work more, tweet less' Harry Styles hits back at criticism over wearing dress on Vogue cover MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sanders.

And some liberal groups are watching her warily.

“As the leading Democratic presidential contenders increasingly unite around Medicare for all and the Green New Deal, I don’t understand why the chair of the DCCC is trying to divide Democrats by putting forward talking points from Republicans and insurance corporations,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman with the progressive grass-roots group Justice Democrats.

As head of the DCCC, Bustos is charged with protecting the Democrats’ newly won majority during a high-stakes presidential campaign, where President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE will devour much of the media attention and Democrats have dozens of vulnerable incumbents in conservative-leaning districts — a tough map that she readily acknowledges.

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“I consider this somewhat of a fragile majority in the sense that we have 26 Democrats who won by 5 points or fewer. We have 31 Democrats serving in Trump districts,” Bustos said. “And so first and foremost, if we want to hang onto the majority, we’ve got to have that strong defensive strategy.”

Bustos is an affable figure who rose quickly up the Democratic ranks, joining leadership last Congress as a head of the party’s messaging arm. Seated in her office adjacent to the DCCC’s war room, she is friendly but no-nonsense, relaxed in her new role but deadly serious about the task ahead. 

She comes to the job with a relevant résumé: Trump won her district in 2016, and she’s long argued for Democrats to diversify their messaging pitch to attract more middle-of-the-country voters, who have flocked to the Republicans’ side in recent years, and tipped the White House for Trump. Bustos won her 2018 reelection race by more than 24 points.

“The offensive strategy is to try to grow the majority,” she said. “It is literally this parallel track and we have reorganized this entire building around having a very strong offensive and a very strong defensive strategy going into 2020.”

Republicans need to win roughly 20 seats to win back control of the lower chamber.

Taking a page from the Democrats’ successful 2018 campaign, Bustos is steering the party’s 2020 messaging strategy toward basic kitchen-table economic issues like reducing health care costs, helping graduates pay down student loan debts and combating income disparity. 

And like her predecessor at the DCCC, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Bustos made clear that she’s not focusing on social issues like abortion, which she said is virtually never mentioned by voters in her district.

“I just get very, very few questions about it,” she said. “It’s not a top-of-mind issue.”

That strategy isn’t without some risks. Luján infuriated many liberals and abortion rights advocates in the last cycle for declining to make a candidate’s support for abortion a precondition for receiving funding from the party’s campaign arm.

Yet Bustos has adopted a similar approach, saying she doesn’t bring up the controversial issue as she sits down with potential candidates heading into 2020. 

“I want the best candidates we can possibly get ... And I want people who are good, honest people who understand the regions where they’re coming from,” she said. “But I can tell you that I’ve never asked that question when I’m in a recruitment meeting.”

Bustos and the Democrats are eyeing Texas as particularly fertile ground as they aim to pick off vulnerable Republicans next year. Democrats scored two big victories over GOP incumbents their last year — ousting longtime Reps. Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsWhy Trump's defeat is bittersweet for Texas Democrats Bottom line Texas Democrat Colin Allred beats back GOP challenger MORE and John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonTexas Republicans sound post-2020 alarm bells 2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program Bottom line MORE — and party leaders have been encouraged by the near-success of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) in his bid to unseat Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Senate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge MORE (R-Texas).

Bustos said Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq War veteran who nearly defeated Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdDefense policy bill would create new cyber czar position House Hispanic Republicans welcome four new members Democrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains MORE (R-Texas) last year, will wage another challenge next year. And Bustos is personally recruiting another 2018 candidate, M.J. Hegar, to run again against Rep. John CarterJohn Rice CarterGOP's Carter fends off challenge in Texas Cook Political Report shifts 8 more House races toward Democrats Biden, Democrats see late opportunity in Texas MORE (R-Texas) just north of Austin. 

“More than anything, it’s changing demographics,” Bustos said of the Democrats’ newfound success in Texas, “and I would say over the next, you know, one, two, three cycles, that that state’s going to look very different.”

Another challenge facing Bustos revolves around the Republicans’ strategy of branding all Democrats — even the moderates — as leftist extremists by linking them to liberal figures like Ocasio-Cortez and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks Hillicon Valley: Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security | Biden says China must play by 'international norms' | House Democrats use Markup app for leadership contest voting Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package MORE (D-Calif.). That effort has been thrust into the spotlight this month, following remarks by Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan Omar'It's not a slogan': Progressives push back on Obama's comments on 'defund the police' movement Meet the three Democrats who could lead foreign affairs in the House Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far MORE (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim women to arrive in Congress this year, which many deemed anti-Semitic.

Bustos downplayed the controversy as “one person making one statement,” and quickly pointed out that Democratic leaders expect to vote Thursday on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. 

“We hold our own accountable, and there is a big difference between what we do and what the other side of the aisle does,” she said. “It took them 13 years to say anything about [Rep.] Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingFeenstra wins Iowa House race to fill Steve King's seat Democrats lead in 3 of 4 Iowa House races: poll Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones MORE [R-Iowa]. And she’s been in office for what — two months? We hold our own accountable.” 

Bustos also pushed back against the small but high-profile effort by the Justice Democrats — a group aligned with Ocasio-Cortez — to primary incumbent lawmakers who don’t meet the group’s progressive purity test. Labelling the DCCC “an incumbent-friendly organization,” Bustos extended an olive branch to Ocasio-Cortez, sitting down recently to breakfast with the rising Democratic star, though she declined to say what the two discussed. 

“We live in a democracy where anybody’s allowed to ... run against anybody,” Bustos said. “I would prefer that, as far as Democrats go, that we just work together; and we make sure that our colleagues can come back, and that we do what we can to pick up additional seats.”

--This report was updated at 12:19 p.m.