Then-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina was more intimately involved than previously known in the creation of an organization that funded millions of dollars of advertisements to boost President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, according to documents released today by House Republicans.
Messina, who is now the campaign manager for Obama’s re-election bid, also asked AARP to run robocalls in Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D) home state of Nebraska during a key moment of the bill’s debate, threatened “war” with the AFL-CIO over an advertising-related dispute and met dozens of times at the White House with a political consultant running the health care advertising campaign funded by industry groups.
Media reports in 2009 revealed the role of White House officials in creating Healthy Economy Now, a nonprofit political organization that touted in fundraising solicitations that the names of donors would not be revealed.
Democrats pointed to those reports to argue that there was nothing new in the documents released today.
“There is nothing new here,” House Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “The advertising by Healthy Economy Now and Americans for Stable Quality Care was reported in detail in almost real time in 2009 and 2010, as was the information about the group’s members and its formation.”
The White House also sought to downplay the accusations.
“Republicans, who previously admitted this is not serious and merely a partisan effort to distract the president’s re-election campaign, are now attempting to recycle an old story that was well-covered during the original debate three years ago. This House Energy and Commerce Committee has spent over $1 million in taxpayer dollars and the past 16 months making baseless, politically-driven allegations — but has done almost nothing to move legislation that would create jobs or grow the economy,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.
But the documents show deeper involvement by the White House than previously acknowledged and offer a closer look at communications between the players involved.
In a staff memo released by the Energy and Commerce Committee, Republicans said that the new information showed hypocrisy on the part of Obama, who has blasted shadowy political groups that do not have to report the names of their donors.
“We don’t know who’s behind these ads and we don’t know who’s paying for them. ... A group can hide behind a phony name like ‘Citizens for a Better Future,’ even if a more accurate name would be ‘Corporations for Weaker Oversight,’” Obama said in an August 2010 radio address.
Messina and Jon Selib, chief of staff to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.,) convened an April 2009 meeting at the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to brief an array of organizations about the planned ad campaign.
Michelle Nawar, an official with the Service Employees International Union, described the meeting in an April 22 email to Andy Stern, then head of the union.
Messina and Selib “basically want to see [ads] linking HC reform to the economy and the need to do HC reform now. There were not a lot of details but we were told that we [would] be getting a phone call,” Nawar wrote, adding that she had received the phone call that day from Nicholas Baldwick, a Democratic consultant who had worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Many of the groups represented at the DSCC meeting helped fund Healthy Economy Now, while others, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and America’s Health Insurance Plan, declined to participate.
Managing the group were Democratic consultants with strong ties to the 2008 Obama campaign and White House senior adviser David Axelrod’s former public relations firm.
Emails show that the “Harry and Louise” ads, which are often credited with derailing President Bill Clinton’s proposed health care overhaul, were a specific request of Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff and now Chicago mayor.
“Rahm asked for Harry and Louise ads thru third party. We’ve already contacted the agent,” Bryant Hall, a top lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said in a July 7, 2009, email.
Around that time, the set of Democratic consultants who operated Healthy Economy Now also created another group, Americans for Stable Quality Care, with a similar mission and funding source.
The GOP memo argues the documents show how closely White House officials were running Healthy Economy Now, pointing out that the group hired Axelrod’s firm to produce advertisements before the Pharmaceutical and Research Manufacturers of America came on board, even though the trade association provided the vast majority of the group’s funding.
PhRMA officials referred to the consultants running the organization as the “WH folks,” the “team working with the White House” and “WH-designated folks.”
Besides Healthy Economy Now, emails show Messina delivering detailed requests to several other organizations that were helping push the health law.
At one point, Messina was alerted to a new advertisement from the AFL-CIO that urged passage of the bill but criticized a proposed tax increase in it.
The release for the ad said the initial buy was in Washington, D.C., but would be expanded to states of key Senators. “Bill: dc buy is fine, you guys run this in key senate states and you are declaring war,” Messina wrote the AFL-CIO’s Bill Samuel in a December 2009 email.
Later that month, needing Nelson’s support for the Senate bill, Messina wrote to an AARP representative: “We need barry rand to go meet with ben nelson personally and just lay it on the line. We will be with you, we will protect you. But if you kill this bill, seniors will not forget. We are at 59, we have to have him.”
Messina also asked for the group to bolster support in Nelson’s state. “Can we get immediate robo calls into Nebraska urging nelson to vote for cloture?” he wrote.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.