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Democrats Hope to Find Health Care Footing

After struggling to defend health care reform for much of the past two years, Senate Democrats are growing confident that they’ve finally hit on a unifying formula: Attack Republicans for trying to take patients’ rights away and use the GOP’s own lines against them.

So far, at least, it appears to be working. Senate Democrats were able to stick together last week as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) attempt to repeal the health care law went down in a party-line vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last week he hoped that by beating back the repeal effort, Republicans would stand down. And Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) went on the offensive, arguing that Republicans now need to come to the table with specific ideas for improving the law and forget trying to overturn it.

The victory also gave Senate Democrats a chance to put the focus on the benefits they say the law is already providing, such as a new 35 percent tax credit that took effect Jan. 1 for small businesses that buy health insurance and a $250 payment for seniors who entered the “doughnut hole” for prescription drugs.

“How about the free checkups, preventive checkups, that every senior is entitled to once a year that will save billions of dollars in prevention and make seniors healthier? Do Republicans want to repeal that?” Schumer asked at a press conference last week.

Democrats say it’s been much easier for them to come together around a message against the repeal than it was to promote passing the law in the first place. Democrats spent 15 months trying to enact health care reform in the last Congress, and during much of that time they were forced to defend the effort.

“It’s simple. Don’t let them take away your rights, don’t let them put the insurance companies back in charge,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

“When you talk about taking something away, that resonates with people,” another senior Democratic aide said.

Republicans say the Democratic unity only helps them show the divide between the parties, and they say the law is as unpopular as ever.

“I think the Democrats are still in denial about what the public believes about this,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said at a press conference last week. “The American public made up their minds a long time ago that this bill is a loser.”

“The facts are on our side: It will break our budget, put bureaucrats between patients and their doctors, and slash a half-trillion from Medicare for a new entitlement that we can’t afford,” a senior Senate GOP aide said.

One Senate Democratic lobbyist said that even though Democrats feel optimistic about their health care message, many were shaken by the recent Florida court ruling declaring the law unconstitutional.

Before the ruling, the lobbyist said Democrats “felt like they were gaining the upper hand on selling the bill, everything the Republicans were doing on repeal was actually starting to bite them a little bit because it was giving Democrats an opportunity to talk about what was good in the bill.”

The lobbyist also said there is frustration among rank-and-file Senators that McConnell appears to be able to dictate the agenda.

“I’m not sure Democrats have gotten over November,” the lobbyist said. “They feel like they have to play defense constantly, so they are just kind of trying to put their heads down and get their work done.”

And the Senate GOP isn’t going to let up. On Friday, Republicans introduced a bill that would put a moratorium on implementing the law while court challenges are under way.

McConnell also said last week there would be more votes on items such as allowing states to opt out of the law and an attempt to kill the individual mandate, which requires people to buy insurance. And those votes — which appear all but guaranteed at some point later this year given the gentlemen’s agreement on amendments between McConnell and Reid — won’t be as easy for Democrats to stay together on.

Moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), have already signaled their desire to make changes, and Republicans are eyeing the 23 Democratic seats up next year for converts.

Democrats, however, argue that as time passes, repeal fervor will wane as the benefits begin taking hold and what Schumer called the “parade of horribles” used to attack the health care law fails to materialize.

And they plan to coordinate with the White House as they roll out statistics in the coming months on the number of people and businesses benefiting from the new law, including the thousands of businesses taking advantage of the new tax credit.

But the overarching message coming out of the White House and Hill Democrats is to try to turn the page, and they are using a GOP line from 2009 to do it: Why are they focusing on health care instead of jobs?

“The American people told us focus on jobs, the economy and the middle class,” Schumer said. “We’re doing it, they’re back trying to turn back the pages of history and not focusing on what the average voter wants us to focus on.”

But Republicans say that argument falls flat. They point to opposition from business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, which says the law’s regulatory and tax burdens have hurt job growth.

McConnell said the business leaders he talks to all say the health care law has slowed hiring.

In the meantime, Democrats said that if Republicans start putting up a lot of political votes on health care, they are prepared to retaliate with votes on some of the popular provisions in the law as well.

“We’re ready for what comes,” the first Democratic aide said. “There’s a bunch of Democrats that are ready to go blow for blow.”

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.

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