Transcript: Health on the Hill

Jackie Judd: Good day, I’m Jackie Judd with Health On The Hill. Joining me today to discuss what’s been going on with health care legislation during the congressional recess is Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico. Welcome, Carrie. Thanks for coming in again.

It’s been pretty raucous out there in some of the congressional districts when congressmen and senators now are trying to hold meetings about health care reform legislation. The White House seems to be launching, at this moment, a pretty strong offense. What’s happening there?

Carrie Budoff Brown: Absolutely, they are today launching a web site similar to what they did during the campaign to fight the accusations or the rumors about Obama being a Muslim or questions about his patriotism. It was called “Fight the Smears” back during the campaign. This is going to be just about health care – A Reality Check. A similar format though. They’ll put out a myth and they’ll try to debunk it. And this follows their philosophy during the campaign, which is if you give people more information, the right information, that works to their benefit.

In terms of how you fight myths, the old school was you just would ignore them, hoping the media wouldn’t pick up on them. But with the internet it’s just too pervasive, it’s seeped too deeply into what people are talking about. And they decided last week that they had to go ahead and do this, and in some ways it may be a couple of weeks late. These distortions or the questions about some of the aspects of the plan have been circulating for weeks, if not months. So they have a little bit of catching up to do.

JJ: And they also, before the Senate left late last week, they called in some key Senators to brief them on how to approach these kind of events.

CBB: Yes. Last week, David Axelrod and Jim Messina, two top aides at the White House, came down to the Senate, did a messaging event, gave them polling numbers, to outline what is the most popular messaging. And that’s focusing on something they are now calling Consumer Protections, which are that they don’t discriminate based on pre-existing conditions and some of those insurance reforms.

Carrie Budoff Brown: Absolutely, they are today launching a web site similar to what they did during the campaign to fight the accusations or the rumors about Obama being a Muslim or questions about his patriotism. It was called “Fight the Smears” back during the campaign. This is going to be just about health care – A Reality Check. A similar format though. They’ll put out a myth and they’ll try to debunk it. And this follows their philosophy during the campaign, which is if you give people more information, the right information, that works to their benefit. In terms of how you fight myths, the old school was you just would ignore them, hoping the media wouldn’t pick up on them. But with the internet it’s just too pervasive, it’s seeped too deeply into what people are talking about. And they decided last week that they had to go ahead and do this, and in some ways it may be a couple of weeks late. These distortions or the questions about some of the aspects of the plan have been circulating for weeks, if not months. So they have a little bit of catching up to do. CBB: Yes. Last week, David Axelrod and Jim Messina, two top aides at the White House, came down to the Senate, did a messaging event, gave them polling numbers, to outline what is the most popular messaging. And that’s focusing on something they are now calling Consumer Protections, which are that they don’t discriminate based on pre-existing conditions and some of those insurance reforms.

But in addition to that, they showed them clips of the town halls that we’ve been seeing on YouTube, and gave them some advice. Among those tips is you have to prepare for these events, you just can’t call an event and show up and hope that your supporters show up, too. You have to do a little bit of pre-planning and get your messaging down.

JJ: And in terms of the talking points, it seems that the White House has shifted a little bit in what it wants emphasized. And that is the group that now needs to be sold is the group not necessarily that’s uninsured but the group that is insured.

CBB: Yes, and that actually has been their strategy for many months. It’s just now, instead of emphasizing the public option, which you would think is something that would appeal to the uninsured, they are talking solely about insurance reforms, which are targeted right at that audience that is insured, and creating more stability and security for them. Third Way, a think tank, put out a memo a couple of weeks ago, and I think we talked about that the last time I was here.

The message – insurance reform, health care reform, will supply security and stability to the average American family that has insurance – that has really become central to the White House’s message. And that’s targeted specifically at people who have insurance but may not have it a couple of years from now or a couple of months from now. They may have it but may not be able to pay for it.

JJ: The Senate broke for its recess at the end of this past week. Where do things currently stand with the core group of six Senators from the Finance Committee that have been trying to negotiate a bipartisan deal.

CBB: Well, they met through Thursday night. A little bit less intensively last week, but going into this week, they have pledged to talk on the phone and hold video conferences, maintain that contact through the August recess. President Obama asked them to continue talking. They’ve even discussed possibly getting together physically in one place, maybe in Iowa later in the month. And keeping up that contact is going to be critical because they’ve set a soft deadline of September 15. When they get back, that leaves them only a week to get some kind of a deal before they may have to go to a plan B, which Democrats, from Schumer to President Obama, are openly talking about now.

JJ: And that is to just go with a Democratic backed bill?

CBB: Yes, possibly a Democratic backed bill, or go to some other option that Senators are contemplating, and I’m sure they have a couple of them. But yes, the Finance Committee is moving ahead with a Democrat-only bill. That deadline is nearing. If they don’t maintain those talks and that momentum, that good vibe that they may have, they’ll be set back. So, we’ll be looking to see how much interaction they have over the next few weeks.

JJ: A final question: When Congress does return in several weeks, what is the bottom line fear that the White House and other supporters of health care reform have about the residue that the chaotic town meetings will have on lawmakers?

CBB: I think that John Harwood of the New York Times wrote a piece today which kind of hit the nail on the head in terms of: it matters what happens to these six Senators on the Finance Committee. It’s a very, very delicate negotiation, a very delicate process. I think the idea is that if those six come up with some sort of bipartisan agreement, that in some ways restart the engine on health care reform, but if you see this group falling apart, it will have ramifications across Congress.

And I think the worst fear, of course, is letting the message get away from them. I’m not yet sure who benefited from last week, whether it was the anti- or pro-reform activists. It was a very confusing week, I think, in terms of how that plays out for the long term, and it’s only the first week. So, I think the fear is: not counteracting strongly enough. And that’s what they’re going to try to do, but it’s going to be a tough road.

JJ: Ok, thank you very much, Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico.