Public support for Democratic health care proposals is rebounding from its crater this summer, but Republicans are hoping to use fresh charges of Democratic tyranny to get back on the offensive as the reform debate heads into the home stretch.
Republicans hope that by focusing on the White House’s public spats with Fox News and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, closed-door meetings on health care reform and other alleged abuses of power, they can galvanize the anti-government movement.
Over the past few weeks, House Republican leaders have characterized Democratic internal negotiations over the health care reform bill as “backroom deals— in “smoke-filled rooms— between the White House and special interests.
Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) repeated this message to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Friday during their weekly colloquy on the House floor.
“Those continued negotiations are occurring behind closed doors,— Cantor said, referring to internal Democratic talks about various approaches to government-funded health insurance. “They are occurring just on one side of the aisle and in and around issues of health care that affect every American.—
Hoyer immediately rejected Cantor’s assertion and said Republican opposition to any form of the public insurance option made conversations with them on that topic futile.
“Nothing is secret. Nothing is behind closed doors,— Hoyer shot back. “Now, are we having discussions with ourselves about how we want to get there and with people who will vote for the bill? The gentleman has made it very clear, I don’t think your side is for a public option.—
Republican aides said the GOP will continue to harp on the lack of transparency in Congress and hopes by doing so to draw attention to the allegation that President Barack Obama broke his promise to have the health care reform debate out in the open.
“Pushing for greater transparency is good public policy, and good politics,— said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “By reminding the American people that President Obama pledged that health care negotiations would take place in public, on C-SPAN — in contrast to the backroom deals now being cut with special interests — we highlight his broken promise and raise more question about the deeply unpopular government takeover of health care.—
A video released by the House Republican Conference on Thursday titled “Behind Closed Doors— shows a clip of then-candidate Obama on the campaign trail telling a crowd that the health care reform negotiations will be “televised on C-SPAN.—
The GOP video then flashes to images of cigar-smoking politicians going through a bill behind closed doors.
GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), who narrated the video, said the opposition to the Democratic health care reform bill has ebbed only because voters have been kept in the dark since the turbulent town hall meetings last August. “I see no erosion of concern,— he said. “What I have seen is that as the debate has gone behind closed doors, Americans have less to react to.—
Boehner accused the White House of “Chicago-style politics,— demonizing critics through vicious political attacks.
“They’re writing a health care bill in secret, even though the president called for all of this to be out on an open table and have C-SPAN cameras in the room,— Boehner told reporters during a press briefing last week. “Instead, Democrats are targeting those that don’t fall immediately in line [such as] the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, doctors [and] Fox News.—
Conservatives were outraged earlier this month after White House senior adviser David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Fox News is an advocacy group, not a news organization, because of its choice of programming and coverage.
The Obama administration has also reportedly sought to cut the U.S. Chamber of Commerce out of policy debates by talking directly to CEOs of major corporations about major issues instead of working through the trade group.
Senate Republicans have generally sought to avoid the partisan outrage that is common in the House and on talk radio. But even normally staid Republicans have begun to ring the “Big Brother— alarm — including Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who warned Democrats against compiling Nixonian enemy lists in an unusually forceful floor speech last week.
Alexander on Friday said his speech was not part of an orchestrated partisan attack and that he was spurred by a number of factors, including charges that the White House has targeted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and that Democrats introduced legislation stripping insurers of antitrust exemptions after they criticized the Senate health care reform bill.
Alexander, who worked in the Nixon White House, said his speech was intended as “friendly advice.—
“I’ve been growing concerned about what I’ve seen coming out of the Obama White House based on what I saw … in the Nixon White House,— Alexander said.
The recent attacks on Fox News and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce along with other White House activities “just sound to me like the early stages of what ended up in the [Nixon] enemies list,— Alexander said.
Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also stepped into the fray last week, raising concerns about a Department of Health and Human Services Web site that invites viewers to endorse Obama’s health care reform plan. Grassley warned that the site might violate rules against government-funded “propaganda.—
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, has accused HHS of launching an investigation of a major health insurer in retaliation for the company sending out mailers critical of Democratic reform proposals and telling other companies not to send out similar mailers until the investigation is complete.
Like Alexander, neither Grassley nor McConnell has built a reputation for partisan theatrics.
Democrats rejected their complaints and characterized them as naked partisanship by a party with close ties to the insurance industry.
“Senate Republicans have been given ample time to engage in this important debate — including the last eight years when they were in power but never prioritized addressing the broken health insurance system,— a senior Senate Democratic aide said. “Their pleas for more time are hollow — they want time to vet proposals with their cronies in the insurance industry.—
Publicly, Republicans insist their outrage is not part of a political strategy and is simply an organic expression of concern. Privately, however, GOP operatives familiar with the Senate said that while the various Members may have arrived at their criticism individually, there is a certain level of organization going on. “Even the most organic [response] has some level of coordination. I mean, these guys do talk to each other,— one Republican aide said.
A second GOP aide agreed, noting that the focus on Democrats’ handling of their opponents picked up after McConnell’s attacks on HHS.
“I think the catalyst was the gag order. Sen. McConnell spent a lot of time talking to his colleagues about this,— the aide said.