GOP Eyes Baucus for Public Relations Boost

Posted September 23, 2009 at 6:34pm

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.

Republicans also used Wednesday’s Finance Committee markup of the health care legislation to attack Baucus’ role in the Blum flap. “This is not right. This is, quite frankly — it smells exactly like tough, hardball Chicago politics abridging the First Amendment,— Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) also took Baucus and the administration to task during the markup, arguing that the investigation is “one of the most heavy-handed, unconstitutional actions that I can think of that our federal government has ever attempted to take against private citizens, private organizations in this country because they disagree with the administration with respect to its ideas on health care reform.—

During the Finance session, Baucus appeared to try to distance himself from Blum’s actions.

“I’m not going to get into that letter, because that’s a whole separate issue,— he said. “Maybe the law was not properly executed. Maybe there’s a — maybe CMS overstepped. I don’t know.—

Democrats also sought to use the uproar to their own advantage, maintaining that Republicans’ concern for Humana demonstrates they care less about the public than they do for insurers.

“What we’ve seen over the last three days are members of the Senate Republican leadership defending insurance companies that are misleading seniors. They’re sending a message that they care more about insurance companies than about the American people who are sick and tired of insurance industry practices,— said Rodell Mollineau, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Democrats also pointed out that McConnell has significant ties to Humana — for instance, his chief of staff, Kyle Simmons, previously worked for the company as its communications director, and the corporation’s executives have been some of the top donors to the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. Additionally, according to OpenSecrets.org, Humana ranks among the top 10 contributors to McConnell’s campaign committee and leadership political action committee, with the two political organs taking in a combined $98,652 from the company since 1989.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Eric Schultz took direct aim at McConnell and argued Republicans are putting their credibility with the public at risk.

“If there was ever any doubt who Republicans are looking out for in the health care debate, Mitch McConnell has offered conclusive proof: the insurance companies,— Schultz said Wednesday. “Republicans jeopardize their own credibility when they choose to defend big insurance companies trying to make false claims about senior citizens.—

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.