The rhetorical war over an alleged attempt by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the Obama administration to “muzzle— insurance companies critical of their health care plan intensified Thursday, with Republicans accusing Democrats of violating federal guidelines and threatening to filibuster a host of executive branch nominations.The controversy was touched off earlier this week when, at the behest of Baucus, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services acting Director Jonathan Blum sent a letter to Humana and other insurers warning them to stop sending out a mailer critical of Baucus’ health care bill.Republicans on Thursday pointed to a 1998 guidance from the CMS that outlines the circumstances under which insurance companies can communicate with seniors about pending legislation to argue that the administration is seeking to stifle debate.In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, top Senate Republicans demanded that HHS immediately lift the “gag order— and warned that they would filibuster any HHS nominees until she does so.“The Obama administration has reversed this longstanding HHS decision — in the midst of a critical debate about the future of health care services in our country — to shut down communication between private companies and America’s seniors on an issue that has a direct impact on their health care ... contradicting your past public guidance and the plain language and spirit of the First Amendment, among the most sacred tenets of our democracy,— Republicans wrote in the Thursday letter, “America’s seniors and the health plans that serve them deserve to have their free speech rights respected. ... Until your department rescinds its gag order and allows seniors to receive information about matters before Congress, we will not consent to time agreements on the confirmation of any nominees to your department or associated agencies.—The White House has five HHS nominees pending before the Senate, with an additional five vacancies at the agency. Republicans said they will block any effort to bring any of those nominees to the floor until their concerns are resolved.The GOP’s entire leadership team — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), Conference Vice Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) — signed the letter, as well was Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).The House Republicans also ratcheted up the pressure on the administration over the “gag order.— “The more we uncover about this gag order, the more disturbing it becomes. The White House is clearly trying to keep seniors from learning the facts about their proposed Medicare cuts. Reversing precedent and abusing the federal government’s regulatory authority to restrict the constitutionally protected flow of information is wrong and unethical,— House Ways and Means ranking member Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said Thursday.Camp on Wednesday wrote to the administration asking for legal justifications for the CMS letter.Democrats, however, rejected those arguments, arguing that the 1998 guidance bars “misleading— claims by insurers — which they insist Humana’s original mailer was. Democrats also pointed out that the guidance required insurers to include a disclaimer in any mailers on legislation, which Humana did not.Democrats argued that the burgeoning scandal is more about Republicans’ trying to protect the insurance industry, rather than concerns about freedom of speech.“These days, it is hard to distinguish Republican Members of Congress from the insurance industry lobbyists who are trying to kill reform. Whether it is Republican Senators trying to slow the process to appease special interest lobbyists or House Republicans defending a giant insurance company that is using taxpayer-funded misinformation to terrify seniors, the GOP’s objective is clear: Leave no giant insurance company behind,— Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said."This is pretty simple. All the GOP spinning in the world can't hide the fact that Republicans continue to protect big insurance companies who mislead seniors. This latest attempt is bizarre and untrue pushback — CMS has always said providers can communicate with their beneficiaries as long as it's done in an accurate and truthful way. The letter from Humana clearly wasn't — it was both false and misleading. CMS did the right thing protecting seniors from these scare tactics,— a senior Democratic Senate aide said.