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Obama White House is promising to defend democrats against healthcare opponent's attacks

07 08 09 - 12:54

White House Vows to Defend Democrats on Health Reform
By LAURA MECKLER - The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- Top Obama aides promised Senate Democrats that the White House would defend them on health care if opponents attack, part of an organized effort to arm Democrats as they head out of town for the August break.

At a closed-door meeting Thursday with senators, White House senior adviser David Axelrod presented polling data that he said showed the administration's new message focused on consumer protections was effective, particularly with swing voters.

And White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina said Democratic senators who are attacked for supporting the health-care bill can count on the White House to help organize local doctors, nurses, religious leaders and others to come to their defense.

"If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard," Mr. Messina told senators, according to two people in the room.

Republicans say the health bills working their way through Congress cost too much, won't help most Americans and will lead to excess government control over the health system. They say momentum for the bills is likely to slow after the August break, once lawmakers hear from their constituents.

The White House plans to start a Web site to "fight the smears" and "rebut the whisper campaign" against the health-care legislation, a White House official said. White House officials and their allies also are encouraging activists on their side to show up at town hall meetings, where boisterous opponents have been shouting down members of Congress.

At Thursday's meeting, each Democratic senator received a "message card" prepared by the White House with talking points on health care and state-specific information about the rising cost of care.

The Thursday meeting in the Capitol was the third session this week aimed at arming senators as they head back to their states for the August recess, beginning Friday. On Tuesday, they received a luncheon pep talk from Mr. Obama at the White House, and on Wednesday, Senate staff gave a health policy briefing.

Democratic congressional leaders are fearful a grassroots backlash in August may undermine already uncertain support in Congress for health legislation.

On Thursday, Mr. Axelrod told senators that polling data show it is particularly effective to talk about provisions in the health legislation that would prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and dropping people who become sick. Other provisions would require coverage for preventive care and limit out-of-pocket costs.

Mr. Obama adopted this message, stressing protections for consumers, after months of talking about cost control failed to rally public support, and Democrats have begun using increasingly hostile language against the industry.

The insurance industry has already agreed to most of the consumer protections, and they have proved uncontroversial in the congressional debate. But the industry says it doesn't appreciate being painted as the villain. Aetna Inc. Chief Executive Ronald Williams said Aetna employees "were deeply offended by the language" coming from some congressional Democrats.

Major decisions on the health-care legislation are likely to wait until lawmakers return after Labor Day. Three House committees have already passed health bills, but Democratic leaders privately don't expect action in the full House until early October.

At the White House on Thursday, the president met for an hour with a bipartisan group of senators working on health legislation, and he urged the group to use the August break to narrow differences. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R., Maine) said the objective of the bipartisan group is to broaden access to health care and lower costs -- not create a government-run system. "We are moving heaven and earth to reach that objective," she said.

—Greg Hitt contributed to this article.
Write to Laura Meckler at




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