Health-Care Reform Negotiators in Senate Hoping to Keep Deal Alive During Recess

David Axelrod, center, the senior adviser to President Obama, meets with senators to talk about communication strategy for health-care legislation.
David Axelrod, center, the senior adviser to President Obama, meets with senators to talk about communication strategy for health-care legislation. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

Senators headed home for their August break Thursday amid an escalating partisan battle over health-care reform, with a small band of lawmakers hoping to keep their delicately negotiated compromise alive until Congress reconvenes in September.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a key negotiator, said she was so alarmed about distortions involving the deal being developed by members of the Finance Committee that she urged President Obama during a visit to the White House on Thursday to rebut conservative allegations, "to lessen the concern" about the emerging legislation.

"It's getting above the din of the roar that's out there throughout America," Snowe said. "I said to the president, 'You have to take practical approaches. . . . People need to know it's not going to be a government-run decision-making process for their medical needs. They need to know that the doctor-patient relationship is going to be preserved.' "

But Senate Democratic leaders continued to stoke the controversy, accusing GOP leaders of an artificial grass-roots movement to undermine public confidence in reform efforts.

"I just want to show you what AstroTurf really is," Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said, holding up a patch of fake grass. Republicans, he said, are "taking their cues from talk-show hosts, Internet rumormongers and insurance rackets."

He added: "It's not often that you try to blow yourself up, but that's obviously what they're trying to do with all this vexatious stuff."

Snowe and her two Republican and three Democratic colleagues on the Finance Committee held a final bargaining session Thursday, although the group plans to continue negotiations this month. Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) set a Sept. 15 deadline for his panel to produce a bill, which may be the most viable bipartisan deal on the table as Congress seeks to deliver a final measure to Obama by Christmas.

Obama urged the six senators to keep up their bipartisan discussions, despite little evidence that the detailed policy provisions they are producing are gaining traction with other Republicans. The finance coalition spent an hour with the president on Thursday, half of it with no staff in attendance. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) called the meeting "very constructive and very honest."

The group discussed specific measures, but also the political dynamics that emerged in recent days as the potentially greater impediment to an agreement. The main hurdle is the continued lack of Republican interest in cutting a deal that would allow legislation to advance. Two conservatives, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), have remained at the negotiating table, although they repeatedly said that they will not endorse legislation that does not attract a broader GOP following.

Participants said Obama noted other prospective paths to Senate approval of a health-care bill, including a budget process known as reconciliation, which would limit the scope of the legislation but protect it from a GOP filibuster.

"The president's message to them is to continue to work and find consensus on an issue that we know they've been working hard on and is very important to the American people," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. He said Obama "wanted to hear directly from them on where they were."

The group's session focused on insurance affordability, a lingering concern as lawmakers prepare to push for an individual mandate that would require people to buy coverage. The senators also held a conference call with governors about the cost of expanding Medicaid, the insurance program for low-income people funded jointly by federal and state money.

To help prepare Democrats for criticism back home, the White House dispatched two top aides, senior adviser David Axelrod and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, to lead senators in a closed-door session Thursday on communications strategy.

According to participants, Axelrod shared polling data showing that independents, women, seniors and rural voters are particularly receptive to a consumer protection message that depicts reform as a way to change the behavior of insurance companies. Messina reviewed the ad campaigns planned by conservative and health-care industry groups, vowing, "If you get hit, we'll punch back twice as hard."

In several instances nationwide, conservative activists have disrupted town hall meetings held by House Democrats, who began their recess a week ago, by shouting down lawmakers and occasionally booing them. Republican leaders, including party Chairman Michael S. Steele, have said that they do not support uncivil protests, but stressed that the opposition is generated by concerned citizens, not political organizing. And they say that Democrats embraced similar protests of GOP lawmakers when Republicans controlled Congress.

Wary that the outcry could stoke doubts about the reform effort, Democratic political groups have begun an assertive response. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which supports House Democratic candidates, launched a new Web site Thursday "dedicated to exposing the truth-twisting attack by Republicans and their fringe right-wing groups."

Staff writers Lori Montgomery, Perry Bacon Jr., Michael A. Fletcher and Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.

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