Obama Aims at GOP Critics

Posted July 20, 2009 at 6:35pm

As he launches a broad offensive to keep health care reform on track, President Barack Obama and his aides for the first time are directly targeting the GOP and specific Republicans, characterizing them as spoilers hoping to delay and sink the legislation for their own political gain.

Top Obama aides have privately calculated that highlighting what they say is the nakedly political motivation behind the Republican Party’s assault on Obama’s health care plans will cause public sentiment to ricochet against the GOP.

“As we proceed through this debate, it’s important for the public to know that Republican opposition is not substantive, it’s political,— a senior White House official said. There will be a “big backlash against Republicans— if they are seen as willing to sink health reform “to score political points,— the official said.

Obama in the past has avoided directly attacking the Republican Party or individual Republicans on health care — or most any issue. The new tactic suggests that he is willing to risk bipartisanship to try to beat back GOP opposition to his health initiative.

Republicans said the new tactic would backfire. From the moderate to the conservative ends of the Senate GOP spectrum, there was near-universal agreement that the president’s decision to escalate the political pressure on Republican lawmakers would only hurt the effort to achieve health care reform, if it has any effect at all.

In remarks at a Washington, D.C., children’s hospital on Monday, Obama struck out at Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) for saying last week on a conference call with GOP activists that health care reform could be Obama’s “Waterloo— and that defeating the legislation could “break— the president.

While Obama did not mention DeMint by name, White House aides understood that the reference would be quickly pinpointed by the media.

“Just the other day, one Republican Senator said — and I’m quoting him now — If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo; it will break him,’— Obama said. “Think about that,— he continued. “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses and breaking America’s economy.—

In assailing DeMint, Obama left out a portion of the Senator’s remarks in which he also characterized opposition to Obama in a more principled light, saying “freedom— was at stake.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, briefing soon after Obama’s remarks, quickly picked up on the theme, leveling his sites at DeMint.

“It’s a fairly breathtaking message,— Gibbs said of DeMint’s comments. “We’ve been asked and we’ve talked a lot in this room about bipartisanship, about trying to work with the other side in a way that’s constructive,— Gibbs said. “There clearly are those that want to oppose this purely to continue the 40-year-old Washington gamesmanship of playing politics on health care.—

Gibbs then took aim at “Republican political strategist— Bill Kristol. “Let me quote somebody else,— Gibbs offered. “This is Bill Kristol: There will be temptation for opponents to let up on their criticism or try to appear constructive or at least responsible.’— Gibbs then struck a tone of incredulity, paraphrasing Kristol: “The temptation to appear responsible.—

The new strategy appears well-coordinated with other Democratic groups. On Monday afternoon, the Democratic National Committee and Sen. Benjamin Cardin (Md.) hosted a conference call with reporters they said would “Call Out Republicans For Playing Politics With Health Care Reform— and derided Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele for agreeing with DeMint.

“Unfortunately, I think what we’re seeing from the Republican response is that they’ll say no’ to anything President Obama suggests,— Cardin said in a statement announcing the call.

Key Republican Senators suggested that Obama is his own worst enemy, saying his insistence that the House and Senate clear bills out of their respective chambers before adjourning for the August recess is one of the biggest obstacles to reaching a bipartisan agreement on sweeping health care reform.

“I think that it is a big mistake for the president to pressure the Senate to debate a bill of this consequence and magnitude prior to the August recess. It does not make sense to try to rush this process,— said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who met with Obama last week to discuss health care reform. “It is more important that we get it right than that we get it done before the August break.—

“We all want to solve the health care problem. The way [Obama and the Democrats] want to do it doesn’t solve it,— Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) added.

With Obama still asserting that Congress should approve health care legislation before the upcoming monthlong recess, House and Senate Democratic leaders continued to look for ways to comply. Standing in their way is not just the strong opposition of the Republican minority, but a looming revolt among concerned moderate and conservative Democrats, many of them elected in GOP districts and red states in 2006 and 2008.

In the House, the markup of a leadership-driven health care reform bill began Monday afternoon in the Energy and Commerce Committee, and top Democrats in the chamber hope to approve the bill before leaving town for the month a week from Friday. The conservative House Democratic Blue Dog Coalition could determine the fate of the bill in that chamber.

In the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee finished marking up its bill earlier this month. That legislation — decidedly liberal as written — was passed by the panel on a party-line vote, with all Republicans opposing.

The Finance Committee continued Monday to search for a bipartisan agreement, with the main differences to be bridged revolving around how to pay for reform and whether to implement a government-run insurance plan.

Key bipartisan Finance Committee negotiators were behind closed doors Monday evening, with both sides getting closer by the hour, according to a senior Democratic source close to the negotiations.

“There is a real sense of progress. The group is hard at work and staffs worked all weekend as well,— this Democratic source said. “The Members in the room … are clearly immersed and continuing to work to resolve the remaining outstanding issues. This progress — and this process — is yielding optimism.—

The process in the Senate calls for melding the Finance and HELP bills into a single legislative vehicle for floor consideration. The process for merging these two bills remains unclear and creates yet another political hurdle toward reaching an agreement that can garner 60 votes in the Senate.

Logistics, such as allowing the necessary floor time to confirm Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, are another obstacle to quick summer action.