Hill Democrats say they have no clear understanding of Obama’s strategy — or if there even is one.
Photo: AP photo composite by POLITICO
President Barack Obama has left Democrats as confused as ever over how the White House plans to deliver a health care reform bill this year, following two weeks of inconsistent statements, negligible hands-on involvement and a sudden shift to a jobs-first message.
Democrats on Capitol Hill and beyond say they have no clear understanding of the White House strategy – or even whether there is one – and are growing impatient with Obama’s reluctance to guide them toward a legislative solution.
At a White House meeting Thursday with Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed frustration with the slow pace of the negotiations and the president’s decision not to weigh in publicly on a path forward, according to a Democratic source familiar with the meeting.
And some Democrats feel that every time they look to White House for clarity, they hear something different, as though the strategy is whatever the president or his top advisers said that day.
Take the past two weeks. Since Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate race, Obama or his top advisers have suggested all of the following: breaking the bill into smaller parts, keeping it together in one comprehensive package, putting it at the back of legislative line and needing to “punch it through” Congress, as Obama himself said Tuesday.
The latest comment came during a Thursday fundraiser when Obama described the “next step” as sitting down with Republicans, Democrats and health care experts. “Let’s just go through these bills — their ideas, our ideas — let’s walk through them in a methodical way so that the American people can see and compare what makes the most sense,” Obama said, describing a process that could take weeks, if not longer.
He first floated the idea during his State of the Union speech almost three weeks ago, but top congressional aides in both parties said Friday that they still have no idea what the president was talking about.
Even the White House struggled to explain what Obama had in mind. On Friday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said there was no meeting on the schedule.
At the same fundraiser, Obama seemed to acknowledge for the first time that Congress may well decide to scrap health care altogether – an admission that blunted his repeated and emphatic vows to finish the job.
“I’m not sure where the White House is right now,” said Ralph G. Neas, a longtime progressive activist who is now the head of the National Coalition on Health Care. “But I do believe that given everything that has happened, the time has come for more forceful presidential leadership. That is the only way to close the deal. That kind of leadership involves providing more precise guidance to Congress and a clear case to the American people on how this benefits families. The president must step up and wield the power of his office.”
Also this week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said presidential leadership on health care had “dried up” since the Massachusetts election, and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) ripped into White House senior adviser David Axelrod at the Senate Democratic retreat for failing to provide clarity or direction on the issue.
A senior Democratic aide said the sentiments were “widely held” within the caucus.
“Clearly there are differences between the House and the Senate that we’re going to need the president’s help to resolve,” the aide said.
The White House on Friday had to clarify Obama’s remarks at the Democratic event, which some read as a concession that health care reform might not happen this year.
“This is a fundamental misinterpretation of the president’s comments,” Obama spokesman Reid Cherlin said in a statement. “Last week, he stood before the nation and said he ‘will not walk away’ from health insurance reform. That was his position then, it’s his position now, and he’s said as much in stops across the country nearly every day. He used his remarks last night to motivate Democrats to come together and get this done, noting that the public will judge their leaders on what they accomplish.”
Two weeks ago, the White House had to put out a similar statement clarifying Obama’s remarks, after the president told ABC News that Congress should break up the bill into small pieces. The White House insisted that wasn’t the president’s preferred path after liberals saw his comments as abandoning a comprehensive bill.
Cherlin also disputed criticism that Obama hasn’t been sufficiently immersed in passing a reform bill, saying the White House and lawmakers “are working every day on the best way to achieve that goal.”
Pelosi and Reid have been trying to settle on a strategy, but they showed no tangible progress this past week. Their aides are working through a complicated list of procedural and policy questions associated with using a parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation, which would allow the Senate to pass a bill to fix the original Senate legislation with a simple majorit
But behind the scenes, aides are pointing fingers. House aides say they are waiting for Reid to signal whether he can secure 50 votes. Senate aides say they are waiting for Pelosi to piece together 218 votes for a package of bills – the original Senate legislation, the “corrections” bill, and possibly a third bill with fixes that would not pass under the strict reconciliation rules.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Friday that Obama needed to “start cracking the whip” to get the House to pass the Senate bill.
“The president has not been engaged like he should,” Nelson said during at visit to the University of Florida, according to the Gainesville Sun. He added that Obama needed to “put on a pair of brass knuckles and get out a bull whip” to push the House to act.
The heightened level of distrust between the chambers has made the likelihood of finding a quick resolution on their own seem even more remote.
It was only when Obama stepped in last month that the House and Senate resolved its extended impasse over taxing “Cadillac” insurance plans. The president kept the congressional leaders at the White House late into the night on consecutive days to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills. They were said to be close to an agreement on most of the major issues by the weekend before the Massachusetts election.
But now that almost three weeks have passed since losing their filibuster-proof Senate majority, Democrats are wondering why Obama hasn’t tried the same approach – or at least provided some public indication of how Congress should proceed.
“Without presidential leadership,” Neas said, “I just don’t see it happening. Someone has to bring them together.”
It’s unclear whether congressional Democrats will come to a resolution any time soon. They had hoped to determine their strategy by Friday, but negotiations on a jobs bill is taking precedence, aides said. Both Reid and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) – two key negotiators on health care – are expected to be immersed in the jobs talks until Congress leaves for the President’s Day recess.
This means any significant progress on health care reform could be put off until late February, at the earliest.
“Time is ticking,” Neas said, “and I believe time is perhaps our most formidable adversary because we are getting more and more into the election year.”
Chris Frates and Patrick O’Connor contributed to this story.