Obama, Pence Take Dueling PR Trips to Capitol Hill

Obama, Pence Take Dueling PR Trips to Capitol Hill
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President Obama and Vice President-elect Mike Pence met with lawmakers from their respective parties Wednesday to strategize and rally them for the upcoming battle over the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans have already begun the initial steps to repeal Obama’s signature health-care law and hope to have a replacement for it in the coming months. Wednesday’s meetings represented the opening salvo in the messaging war underway as the GOP aims to dismantle Obamacare and Democrats attempt to salvage it.

Pence said in a press conference following his meeting with House Republicans that repealing the law will be step 1 for the new administration. He said there would be some executive action by Donald Trump related to Obamacare on his first day in office, along with legislative action in Congress in the weeks after. But Pence also said he told lawmakers to remind their constituents about Democrats’ broken promises regarding the health-care law, hoping to make them own its failures even as the GOP moves to undo the controversial reforms.

“We're talking about peoples' lives, we're talking about families,” Pence said. “But we are also talking about a policy that has been a failure virtually since its inception and we intend to -- over the course of the coming days and weeks -- to be speaking directly to the American people about that failure, but [also] about a better future we can have in health care.”

The period between repeal and replace is precarious for Republicans, as they work to coalesce around a single new plan. Speaker Paul Ryan said there needs to be a “stable transition” to the replacement, adding, “We want to make sure that as we give relief to people … we do it in a transition that doesn't pull the rug out from anybody.”

There is little Democrats can do to prevent Republicans from dismantling the law since the GOP controls both chambers of Congress, and the process of budget reconciliation -- which they plan to use to repeal the ACA -- allows them to bypass a filibuster in the Senate. Instead, Democrats meeting with Obama on Wednesday focused on how to stress the successes and popularity of certain Obamacare provisions, and the lack of details about the Republican replacement.

Rep. Joe Crowley, when asked what weapons Democrats have to protect the law, replied, “The court of public opinion.”

“The Affordable Care Act is a lot more popular than President-elect Trump would like us all to believe, and our Republican colleagues believe as well,” Crowley said.

And while Pence was admonishing Republicans to make sure Democrats own the failings of Obamacare, Crowley said his party members will work to make sure the shoe is on the other foot once the law is gone.

“Once they make their first move on repeal, they now own it,” the New York congressman said. “They’re going to own what they do."

Obama did take some blame for not doing a better job of trumpeting positive messages about the law during his time in office, according to Democrats in the room.

“He said, ‘I could have done a better job,’” Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois told RealClearPolitics after the meeting. “‘It’s complicated, I could have done a better job.’ It’s one area that I think he could have taken more responsibility.”

Despite the messaging war over repeal, Sen. Dick Durbin and other Democratic lawmakers said they are willing to negotiate with Republicans over what to put in the ACA’s stead. But their long-shot hope is to create enough pressure on the GOP in the next month to stop them short of repeal.

As he left the meeting, Obama told reporters his message to Democrats was to “look out for the American people.” According to those in the room, he also told lawmakers that, as a private citizen in a matter of weeks, he would be envious of their role in the upcoming fight.

“He said he was envious of us that we’re still in the arena,” Crowley said. “I cherish the fact that I’m in the arena right now along with my colleagues to defend the great progress and great work we’ve done over the last eight years.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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