In Session

Health-care debate still alive and well for parties

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

There was a year of hearings, speeches and protests. Three bills passed in the House to complete the process, and two in the Senate. President Obama held several events to commemorate signing the legislation into law.

But the two parties are still arguing about health-care reform.

One point of contention is a newly released brochure to Medicare recipients. Democrats say it explains how the new law works, but Republicans cast it as government-funded propaganda. Republican congressmen talk regularly about trying to repeal the law, while Democrats accuse them of being tools of the health insurance industry.

Lately, Republicans have been attacking the nomination of Donald Berwick to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services -- using Berwick's praise of the British health-care system to say that Obama favors European-style health care, an argument the GOP made repeatedly during the debate in this country.

In the meantime, routine studies about Medicare, Medicaid and other government health-care programs that are traditionally released with little fanfare are now turning into proxy fights over the new law, even if the studies barely mention it.

"The administration and congressional Democrats think the debate over health-care reform is in the rearview mirror, but they couldn't be more wrong," said Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the third-ranking Republican in the House. "House Republicans will not rest until we repeal Obamacare lock, stock and barrel."

The Democrats in Congress don't consider the health-care debate over. They have brought in White House officials to brief members on how to explain the law to voters and increase its popularity.

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

Democrats emphasize that they are not arguing about the bill itself but engaging in a public information campaign to ensure that voters understand the complex law.

At the same time, the effort by Democrats has a political purpose. Party leaders want to mitigate concerns about the legislation, particularly among senior citizens, who often make up a disproportionate share of voters in midterm elections. And Democrats would like to tout positive provisions of the law as another way to turn voters against Republicans because they have called for its repeal.

The Democrats will have a key ally on the issue: the Obama administration. On Tuesday, Obama held a televised town hall meeting with seniors aimed at highlighting the $250 rebate check they will receive to lessen the impact of the "doughnut hole" that affects so many of them.

Broadcast live on C-SPAN and available to seniors nationwide by phone, the president's discussion also focused on efforts to combat scams that are often aimed at the elderly.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) countered Tuesday afternoon by telling reporters that the $250 check will be sent "to a small percentage of seniors. . . . probably three or four times that many will see their benefits reduced through the cuts in Medicare Advantage" in the health-care law, he said.

Republicans, too, view this extended discussion as politically helpful: The new law fits into their broader critique of congressional Democrats as spending too much and increasing the size of 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 party 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 pushing the benefits of the economic stimulus bill. Many Republicans are still saying it was worth the cost, as unemployment has remained high.

But the ongoing debate may not be good for either side. Last year's arguments about health-care reform coincided with some of the lowest public approval ratings for Congress in recent memory, with the public angered by the partisan rhetoric from both sides.

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