White House Gets Republican Backing for Bipartisan Reform

By Michael D. Shear and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Seeking to provide fresh evidence of bipartisan support for health-care reform, the White House is orchestrating a series of endorsements from GOP heavyweights around the country.

With a key Senate panel poised to vote on a broad bill, President Obama and his top aides have reached out to current and retired Republican leaders in the hopes of countering the charge that Democrats are using their congressional majorities to push through partisan legislation.

And in the past two days, former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist; George W. Bush health and human services secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Medicare chief Mark McClellan; California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg -- a Republican turned independent -- have all spoken favorably of overhauling the nation's health-care system, if couched with plenty of caveats regarding the details.

The White House lobbying campaign was aimed, in part, at the one Republican who has indicated she may vote for reform legislation, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), and she said Tuesday that she hopes the comments from her GOP colleagues will resonate.

"I think it is important to hear all voices in the party," she said. "The more we hear, the more we learn, the better job we can do in the final analysis."

However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that his party remains opposed to what he said is legislation that would harm seniors and drive up the deficit.

"The final bill will be worked out, out of sight, by a mere few whose decisions will affect everyone in America," McConnell said in a statement on the Senate floor.

Senior administration aides said they are also looking toward the debates in the full Senate and House, where moderate Democrats may take comfort in voting for a bill with some sense of bipartisan backing.

Most of the endorsements came at the prompting of the White House political team. Each friendly statement was then immediately circulated and promoted by White House aides in e-mails and telephone calls.

A senior Obama aide, speaking about the negotiations on the condition on anonymity, said administration officials asked Bloomberg, Thompson and Schwarzenegger to weigh in. The White House expects other former GOP officials to try to help nudge along the legislative process as early as Wednesday.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said the supportive comments will help rebut the argument of Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who have said that the Democrats' bills should be scrapped.

"Starting over is not an option, though that's the battle cry of the congressional wing" of the GOP, Emanuel said.

Several of the Republicans cautioned that they remain concerned about parts of the legislation.

Thompson, who often had strained relations with the Bush White House, said in an interview that he and Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), a former House Democratic leader, "believe it's time to get something passed that's good for the country on a bipartisan basis." But, he added, a bill currently before the Senate Finance Committee would go too far in imposing new taxes and reductions in future Medicare spending. "I think they're overreaching," he said.

Economists and lobbyists voiced their own concerns Tuesday about the bill, saying that it may fall well short of Obama's goal of near-universal coverage, leaving as many as 28 million Americans without insurance in 2019.

In writing the bill, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, attempted to chart a middle course, imposing new requirements on most Americans to carry health insurance for the first time while providing tax breaks to those at the lower end of the income spectrum.

But Snowe and Democrats on the panel approved amendments that would soften the penalties against people who do not have insurance. The change could mean 3 million fewer people would get health insurance, said Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has done modeling of the various health-care proposals.

A final analysis of the Finance Committee bill from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is expected Wednesday or Thursday.

Hospitals, drugmakers and insurance companies have threatened to oppose legislation that does not deliver tens of millions of newly insured customers. In an agreement with the White House and Baucus, hospital executives agreed to accept $155 billion less in Medicare payments over the next decade if the number of people with insurance reached 94 percent or 95 percent of all Americans.

About 85 percent of Americans are currently insured.

"After two weeks of debate, and rejecting nearly every amendment that could have improved it, this bill is clearly headed in the wrong direction," said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

As the debate moves toward the Senate floor, Democrats are weighing various alternatives to broaden health coverage. Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.) is floating a proposal that would give states more leverage in deciding how to cover their uninsured populations, including through state-run programs.

"It has a great deal of appeal," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said of the Carper proposal. "States as a laboratory of democracy probably can find ways to deal with this, and if they do make a mistake, it's a smaller mistake to correct than at the federal level."

Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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