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Democrats Hope for a Health Bill Lift

Republicans Scoff, Majority Crows as Key Elements of Law Go Into Effect

With some of the most popular provisions of health care reform taking effect last week, Congressional Democrats are getting back on offense just weeks ahead of the midterm elections.

House Democrats said they don’t know whether it was the result of luck or strategic planning that widely supported consumer protections in the health care bill are kicking in as lawmakers enter the final stretch of campaigning. Some of the key provisions now in effect are that children cannot be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition, young adults can stay on their parents’ health care plan until the age of 26, and a health plan can no longer put a lifetime limit on coverage. All of the proposals were scheduled to take effect six months after passage of the health care reform bill, which meant the provisions kicked in Thursday.

Couple these changes with a renewed push by the Obama administration and outside advocacy groups, and voila: Many Democrats are ready to publicly embrace an issue they largely ceded to Republicans and their accusations of a costly, big-government takeover.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen said the new health care policies are just the kinds of tangible issues Democrats can use to contrast themselves against Republicans, who have lambasted Democrats’ “Obamacare” plan and have called for repealing health care reform altogether.

“It’s very important for Democrats to push back and point clearly to these patient protections and consumer protection provisions that Republicans want to repeal. All of these provisions that are taking effect now are designed to give patients more control and insurance companies less sway,” the Maryland Democrat said.

While Members are largely stumping on jobs and the economy, Democratic leaders are urging them to “remind people that when Republicans are talking about repealing health care reform, they’re talking about taking away these protections for kids and seniors, and be specific about what those protections are,” Van Hollen said.

Not that everyone in the majority is eager to tout health care reform. Thirty-four Democrats opposed the final bill, and others are in close races with Republicans running on a platform of fiscal responsibility, a sharp contrast to the $1 trillion health overhaul.

A senior House GOP aide scoffed at the idea of Democrats being ready to make health care reform their issue in the election.

“Have you found any example of any Democratic candidates running any ads in support of Obamacare? The only Democrats running on the issue of health care are running away from Obamacare as fast as their little legs will carry them,” the aide said.

But Democratic leaders are hoping to arm their Members with as many positives as they can, aware that aspects of health care reform will play differently in nearly every district. On Thursday, they brought Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius into a House Democratic Caucus meeting to help Members decide how to frame the issue in their districts. The secretary explained all the new provisions going into effect and urged Democrats to pick and choose the policies that would play the best in their districts.

“Possibly one man’s tea is another man’s poison,” Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson said.

But the key is for every Democrat to individualize his or her campaign, the Connecticut Democrat said. “So what works in Connecticut doesn’t necessarily work in Mississippi for [Rep.] Gene Taylor.”

A senior aide who was in the Caucus meeting said Sebelius’ visit went over well with lawmakers.

“What she was telling people to do was focus on the pieces that affect insurance companies, and that that’s easy to talk about,” the aide said. “People were really into it. They had a bunch of questions. It was all positive.”

The White House has significantly stepped up its outreach on health care reform. In the past week alone, President Barack Obama attended a question-and-answer session in Virginia and conducted a conference call with 10,000 faith leaders, Vice President Joseph Biden conducted a conference call with thousands of seniors, and the White House Public Engagement Office held grass-roots call with a number of constituency groups. On top of that, outside groups held 200 events to mark the new policies taking effect and administration officials are expected to maintain an aggressive public outreach campaign.

“We were pleased to mark an important milestone for our health care system on a day when many of the worst insurance company practices became a thing of the past,” a White House official said.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva emphasized that Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to make health care reform — “the administration’s signature social piece” — more central to their campaigning, since many base supporters are frustrated that Congress didn’t do more to advance their agenda.

The majority adopted the mentality of “let that base wait,” the Arizona Democrat said, and now there is “the realization that that base is critical to our successes in the midterms.”

Democrats in tight races and in safe seats alike said they have been highlighting the benefits of health care reform all along and are not afraid to keep discussing it.

“I’m happy to have that conversation,” freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) said. “I’m talking about it all the time. Is it surprising that Republicans would focus on the negative?”

Rep. Nick Rahall said Democrats have many things to be proud about with health care reform while Republicans don’t even have an alternative proposal on the table.

“Why shouldn’t we talk about the good parts of it? What’s the alternative, repeal? Heavens, no,” the West Virginia Democrat said.

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