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GOP Eyes Baucus for Public Relations Boost

Republicans are hoping to use the flap over an alleged effort by the Obama administration and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to “muzzle” insurance company criticism of their health care reforms as an opportunity to recoup some of the momentum the party lost following Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst during Obama’s recent address to Congress.

While media coverage of the town hall protests during August portrayed them as citizen uprisings, in the weeks following the recess and Wilson’s outburst, persistent questions about who funded the protesters and whether some of them were racist helped stall some of the GOP’s message momentum.

Republicans hope to reverse that trend thanks to Baucus, who has asked Jonathan Blum, acting director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Center for Drug and Health Plan Choice and a former Baucus Medicaid policy aide, to investigate a mailer by the insurance giant Humana that was critical of Baucus’ health care reform bill. Blum sent Humana a letter warning them to stop sending out the critical mailers and said the agency is investigating the company’s activities.

GOP strategists said Baucus’ connection to Blum could help the GOP regain some of the ground it has lost and said to expect a concerted effort to use the flap to blunt Democratic efforts to marginalize the anti-health-care-reform protesters. In doing so, Republicans hope to wipe away some of the extremist taint that has stuck to the health care protests while painting Democrats as being big-government thugs.

“Any American who hesitates for a second at the prospect of a government takeover is instantaneously reminded of the dangers of big government,” a senior GOP Senate aide said Wednesday. “If Obama was gaining momentum in the health care debate, stories of big-brother-like intimidation stopped it in its tracks. This is an issue that the administration will likely be dealing with far beyond the health care debate.”

Indeed, House and Senate Republicans on Wednesday began a concerted effort to cast Blum’s actions as part of a trend by Democrats and their supporters to stifle debate either by “demonizing” town hall protesters or outright use of federal authority to quash criticism.

“Over the past several months, we’ve seen a pattern of intimidation by supporters of the administration’s health care proposal — including efforts to demonize serious-minded critics at town hall meetings across the country. Now we’re seeing something even worse: the full power of the federal government being brought to bear on businesses by the very people writing the legislation. ... Americans were already skeptical about the administration’s plan. They should be even more skeptical now,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Similarly, House Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) on Wednesday called CMS’ decision to investigate Humana “dangerous.”

“I think it’s really dangerous because what we have is a continuing series of actions by not just the administration, but the administration and the Democrats here in Congress, to mute and silence anybody who doesn’t agree with them,” Price said.

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