Obama Summons All Hands on Health Care

Posted March 2, 2009 at 6:42pm

The White House is planning an all-hands-on-deck lobbying campaign for health care reform, harnessing officials from the White House and across the agencies on behalf of President Barack Obama’s top initiative of the year — and perhaps of his presidency.

Administration officials suggest there will be deep involvement in the effort among Obama’s senior White House aides and a variety of agencies, stretching far beyond the White House legislative affairs office, which will also be integrally involved.

“I also believe you’ll see many people involved in this effort, and many people involved in the campaign to reduce the cost of health care,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. “This isn’t something that’s just going to lie with one or two people. You’ll see this from throughout and across this government.—

Newly installed White House health care chief Nancy-Ann DeParle will lead the White House lobbying effort, serving as the chief interface with lawmakers in the House and Senate and running the show internally. Kathleen Sebelius, nominated to run the Health and Human Services Department, will also be a key player, but she was hired in part for her managerial skills and will have her hands full running her agency.

Obama will have at his disposal a roster of individuals who had experience with the failed 1994 effort by President Bill Clinton to pass sweeping health care legislation and who can provide valuable insight into how not to do it.

DeParle was handling the health care beat at the Office of Management and Budget at the time and was the agency’s point person for the health care reform effort.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was a top adviser to Clinton during the 1994 debacle.

Senior White House Adviser Pete Rouse was chief of staff to then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Vice President Joseph Biden, who is sure to be heavily involved in the Senate health care effort, was already a veteran Senator at the time.

White House legislative affairs chief Phil Schiliro was taking time out to run for Congress in 1994, but he has vast experience working on health care issues for former longtime boss Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), now the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers was in the Clinton Treasury Department working international tax issues, but he is also expected to play a critical role.

Little remarked that the leader of the failed effort, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is herself part of the administration, though her portfolio of course is foreign affairs. But she presumably retains passion for the issue and will undoubtedly offer advice.

And Obama himself will be avidly providing the personal touch, as he did during the effort to pass the stimulus bill.

“I think it would help if he got himself involved,— Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said, indicating that the presidential health diplomacy should begin sooner rather than later.

The White House says Obama is again reaching out to the GOP, starting with the “health care summit— to be held Thursday.

“I think the president has said on any number of occasions that though he has ideas, he’s anxious to hear other ideas, and if a consensus can be reached around a group of ideas that accomplish the goals of cutting costs and increasing access for millions of Americans, he’s more than happy to listen and to adopt those,— Gibbs said.

Gibbs said Obama wants to bring all “stakeholders— to the table, pointing to involvement of corporate interests that will be affected by the legislation alongside health care coverage expansion advocates and experts in the field.

Republicans are ready to listen, but they may be a hard sell. They will be ready with criticism of plans to increase spending and will say they must be satisfied that people will be able to preserve their current insurance arrangements.

“I am very skeptical that he is going to come up with a plan that we can support, but we’re certainly willing to listen,— one top Republican Congressional aide said.

And the GOP stands ready to dig into Obama’s argument that health care reform is critical for the economy.

“During an economic downturn, they’re going to fund this with a carbon tax?— this senior GOP aide asked rhetorically. “They’re going to raise prices for people every time they turn on a light bulb. I think the argument they are trying to help the economy will be pretty easy to pick apart.—

Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Republicans want to see the plan.

“Bringing us in early to the conversation is something we appreciate, but absent seeing a plan, it’s hard for us to say whether it’s something we could support,— she said. “Clearly the American people are hurting right now,— she noted, but with the expanding deficit, “Republicans have raised a lot of concern about the money in the budget for this — some $600 billion with more to come.—

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.