GOP Team Targets Democrats

Bicameral Meetings Coordinate Strategy

Posted March 17, 2010 at 7:03pm

House and Senate Republicans for several weeks have quietly coordinated an intense, disciplined effort to defeat President Barack Obama’s health care reform legislation, timed to scare Democrats just as they prepare for a final vote.

The effort began in preparation for Obama’s Feb. 25 bipartisan health care summit and then pivoted to the legislative endgame. The bicameral GOP effort begins each morning with a leadership staff conference call in which aides discuss messaging strategy and that day’s plan for whipping against the Democratic health care reform package.

During the call, aides to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) provide a list of House Democrats believed to be most susceptible to political pressure. Senate GOP leaders then dispatch various Republican Senators to give radio and newspaper interviews to media outlets in those Democratic House Members’ districts. Thus far, GOP Senators have given 60 local radio interviews; 100 more are planned.

“It’s been important, and there’s been quite a bit of coordination. Most of the play is over there, and so we’re trying to do what we can to help them,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday.

“We’ve worked very closely over the last year and a half,” added House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.). “We have, wherever possible, tried to coordinate our message and educate our Members.”

House and Senate Republicans are scheduled this morning to hold a closed-door conference to discuss health care reform strategy, with only leadership chiefs of staff permitted to join Members in the meeting.

House Democratic leaders are angling for a final vote this weekend on health care.

Congressional GOP leaders say the high-level coordination is something not seen among House and Senate Republicans since perhaps 1994. Leadership staffers on the morning conference call include aides from the offices of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Kyl, Cantor and Pence.

Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who has played a key role in the strategy, credits McConnell and Boehner with facilitating the coordination, saying the cooperation began last year, when the two leaders collaborated to oppose Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget.

Win or lose the health care fight, Alexander views the GOP’s bicameral coordination as a tested asset heading into this year’s midterm elections.

“This is a vast improvement over several years ago, when in the fall of 2006, Republican House Members were literally running against Republican Senators over the immigration issue. So that’s a dramatic change from four years ago when we were deeply divided,” Alexander said. “Institutionally we don’t really mesh easily.”

With the House set to act first on health care, Republicans have sought to feed House Democrats’ existing distrust of the Senate by warning them of all the ways legislation could stall or die in the Senate. In consultation with Cantor’s office, Republican Senators have taken this message to national and regional media, targeting undecided House Democrats.

The coordinated efforts also have been focused on those believed by House Republicans to be playing both sides of the fence. One GOP aide said Republicans have sent out nearly 100 e-mails in the last 20 days highlighting what they consider contradictory or otherwise politically perilous comments made by Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), John Adler (N.J.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Baron Hill (Ind.), Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), Tom Perriello (Va.) and Bill Owens (N.Y.).

Whenever possible, Senate Republicans are deployed to pressure their home-state Democratic House colleagues in local media. “In addition to e-mails, we work to shadow fence-sitting Members’ national TV appearances — which leads to sharper, more direct questions when they appear,” the GOP aide said.

A senior Republican Senate aide familiar with the effort said the campaign arms of each chamber — the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee — have also been involved in the effort.

Republican Congressional aides say the GOP’s coordinated push to defeat health care has netted several positive results — not to mention a badly needed blueprint for how to cooperate on issues still to come before Congress — and helped develop relationships and bicameral trust among GOP leaders at a crucial time for their electoral prospects.

But, of course, the goal of this push is to kill Obama’s health care agenda. And, even as some wavering House Democrats have begun to fall in line and announce their support for the Senate bill and reconciliation, the GOP still believes it has a chance to win. Kyl said any other positive outcome that might emerge from this effort would be a “consolation prize.”

“I’ve said it before: I’d give them a couple of Senate seats if the health care bill could be dropped forever,” Kyl said.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.