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Senate Democrats Get Tactical Advice on Health Care

By Drew Armstrong, CQ Staff

August 6, 2009 -- Senate Democrats got a third and final presentation Thursday on how to sell health care overhaul to their constituents over the August recess, this time from White House senior adviser David Axelrod.

Axelrod and Jim Messina, the White House deputy chief of staff, also advised the senators in the closed-door session on how to deal with the protesters and activists who seek to disrupt town hall-style meetings on health care during the recess. In recent weeks, protesters have interrupted constituent sessions held by congressional Democrats, shouting down members with claims about what the Democrats' health care proposals would do.

"They're just helping us understand the fringe that's trying to mess up our meetings," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the presentation.

During the session, senators were shown videotapes of some of the disruptions, including one clip of a town hall hosted by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, where the congressman was heckled by chanting protesters.

"We cannot allow a vocal, well-organized minority to drown out our message," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., of the protests.

Axelrod said that Democrats would just have to keep talking about what is in the bill and what they believe the benefits are for Americans.

"There's obviously some evidence that there are some groups that are out promoting this, but I'm not going to disparage people," said Axelrod. "Look, I believe in freedom of speech. I just think everybody ought to be able to talk."

Senators after the meeting declined to discuss specific tactics or the advice they were given on countering the protesters.

"I feel like most members have a pretty good idea how to handle it," said Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., who led the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee during its recent consideration, and approval, of a health care overhaul bill.

Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he was prepared as well. "I've had more than 500 town hall meetings. I've heard just about everything. Our rule has always been that as long as you're respectful of your neighbor, it's part of the democratic process," he said.

Message at Home
Lawmakers will need to make the case for the overhaul with voters who have the most to lose — people who already health care coverage they like, senators said.

"To me, the next five weeks are about closing the sale with the insured population," said Wyden.

President Obama has repeatedly promised voters that they will be able to keep their health insurance if they like it.

"One number that I heard months and months ago was that more than 90 percent of the people who voted in last year's election have health care," Casey said. "Obviously we have to speak to them."

Dodd said Democrats have to make the case that the current state of health care is unsustainable, even for people with insurance, with the risk that a medical crisis could wipe out their savings, or a job loss could leave them uncovered.

"I think the insured and the underinsured" are the people Democrats need to sell on their plans, Dodd said. "People, by and large, want to know that what they've got is going to be there."

Senators will also have to deal with inaccurate information coming from those who oppose an overhaul, Wyden said. "Suffice it to say there is a torrent of information out there. A substantial amount of it is untethered to reality, and it's going to be important to show, especially the insured population, how reform is going to affect them," he said.

"It's a challenge, no question about it," said Dodd. "You gotta get out there and make the case. This is not the time for the faint-hearted."

Senate Democrats also will focus on the bill already approved by a party-line vote of the HELP Committee last month, which contains a number of changes to public health programs as well as insurance market reforms.

"In our committee we had a vote," said Casey, a HELP Committee member. "And 10 Republicans voted against those insurance reforms, every single one of them. And not many people know that, but if I have anything to do with it, they're gonna know it."

"When a Republican member of the Senate who was on that committee stands and says 'I want insurance reform,' we gotta turn to the pages in the bill and say, 'Why'd you vote against all these provisions?'" Casey said.

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