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Obama town hall with seniors highlights $250 health-care rebate

By Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; 12:28 PM

Remember health care?

President Obama has spent most of the past five weeks dealing with the oil spill disaster in the gulf, financial regulation reform and still-simmering concern about the fate of the economic recovery.

But the White House is determined to take note of the more popular outcomes of its health-care overhaul, in part to remind voters -- as midterm elections approach -- of the reasons that the president pushed so hard to pass it.

On Tuesday, Obama hosted a televised town hall meeting with seniors aimed at highlighting the $250 rebate check they will receive to lessen the impact of the "donut hole" that affects so many of them.

Broadcast live on C-SPAN and available to seniors across the country by phone, the president's discussion also focused on efforts to combat scams that are often aimed at the elderly -- "tough new efforts to protect seniors," Obama described them -- and to remind seniors of the fraud that can sometimes drain their bank accounts.

"We will find you. We will prosecute you. And we will ultimately prevent those crimes from happening ever again," Obama warned would-be perpetrators of fraud against seniors.

For the president, the public relations event is an effort to move past the year of hearings, speeches and protests. But on Capitol Hill, the two parties -- and particularly the Republicans -- are still arguing about health care.

Republican members of Congress talk constantly about repealing the law. They are sharply attacking the nomination by Obama of Donald Berwick to run the nation's Medicare and Medicaid programs, using Berwick's praise of the British health-care system to accuse Obama of favoring European-style health care, an argument the GOP made repeatedly throughout the health-care debate.

And routine studies that are traditionally released to little fanfare about Medicare, Medicaid and other government health-care programs now turn into proxy fights over the health-care law, even if the studies themselves barely mention the new law.

"The administration and congressional Democrats think the debate over health-care reform is in the rear-view mirror, but they couldn't be more wrong," said Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the No.3 Republican in the House leadership. "House Republicans will not rest until we repeal Obamacare lock, stock and barrel."

The Democrats in Congress, of course, don't see the health-care debate as over, either. They have brought in White House officials to brief members on how to explain the law to voters and increase its popularity, as well as consulting outsiders such as Drew Weston, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta.

"I think it's going to be a regular battle" between the parties, said Rep. John Larson (Conn.), a member of the House Democratic leadership.

Democrats emphasize they are arguing less about the bill itself than engaged in a public information campaign to ensure that voters actually understand the legislation. The law is complicated and the two parties argued tensely over its details, sowing confusion among voters.

At the same time, the effort by Democrats has a political purpose.

Party leaders want to eliminate many concerns about what the legislation would do, particularly among senior citizens, who are usually a disproportionately high percentage of voters in a midterm election. And they would like to tout positive provisions of the law to turn voters against Republicans, who have called for its repeal.

Republicans, too, view this extended discussion as politically helpful: The health-care law fits into their broader critique of congressional Democrats as spending too much and increasing the size of the federal government.

"For the election, part of what you want to do is contrast what would happen if you were governing," said David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises the party's leaders in Congress. "The Democrats and President Obama spent months talking about health care, and Republicans say they should have spent that time working on jobs."

An extended debate about an issue already decided in Congress is not unprecedented. Democrats spent much of last year holding events touting the benefits of the economic stimulus bill. Many Republicans are still attacking that bill for not being worth the cost, since unemployment has remained high.

But the extended debate may not be good for either side. Last year's arguments about health care coincided with some of the lowest public approval ratings in recent memory of Congress, as members of the public grew angry at the partisan rhetoric from both sides.

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