WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republicans’ top negotiator on health care signaled this week that bipartisan talks would continue despite White House suggestions that he and another GOP bargainer have not acted in good faith.
Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman for Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, said the accusations were unjustified. She said Grassley and five other Senate Finance Committee members – half Republicans, half Democrats – will hold their scheduled conference call Friday to try again to reach common ground on a far-reaching health care bill that could win broad support in the full Senate.
Lawmakers and health care activists have grown increasingly pessimistic in recent weeks that the “Gang of Six” can agree on a workable bipartisan bill that would win approval in the Democratic-controlled Congress. White House adviser David Axelrod added to the negative spirit Tuesday when he suggested that Grassley and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., have not acted in good faith because they sharply criticized Democratic plans during the August recess.
Kozeny said Wednesday, Sept. 2: “Attacks by political operatives in the White House undermine bipartisan efforts and drive senators away from the table. Anyone who’s working on an alternative plan – one that would actually drive down costs and not drive up the deficit – knows how difficult the issues are.”
Some Democrats feel President Barack Obama has been too vague and standoffish in discussing his health care goals.
Now he’s thinking of throwing more details and personal weight into the debate, which polls indicate Republican opponents have been winning in recent weeks.
Faced with falling approval ratings and increasingly impatient with the Senate negotiations, Obama is considering a speech in the next week or so in which he would be “more prescriptive” about what he feels Congress must include in a health bill, Axelrod said Tuesday.
The speech might occur before the Sept. 15 deadline that the White House gave Senate negotiators to seek a bipartisan bill, Axelrod said.
Congress reconvenes next Tuesday after an August recess in which critics of Obama’s health proposals dominated many public forums.
Axelrod indicated that Obama would not offer new proposals but would be more specific about his priorities.
“The ideas are all there on the table,” Axelrod said. “Now we are in a new phase, and it’s time to pull the strands of these together.”
Obama has called for innovations such as a federal health insurance plan to compete with private insurers, but he has not insisted on it.
Axelrod condemned comments made in August by Grassley and Enzi.
Their remarks, Axelrod said, “were not exactly consistent with good faith negotiations.”
Enzi, in a radio address Saturday, said Democratic proposals would restrict medical choices and make the country’s “finances sicker without saving you money.”
In an August fundraising letter, Grassley asked for “support in helping me defeat Obama-care.” He said Democratic-drafted bills would be “a pathway to a government takeover of the health care system.”
Kozeny said Grassley was simply restating his well-known opposition to a government-run health insurance plan.
Congress’ August recess was brutal for Obama and his allies, as lawmakers faced raucous crowds denouncing Democrats’ health proposals. When Congress comes back next week, Democratic leaders hope to change the dynamic by holding quiet, closed-door sessions with nervous colleagues and arguing that far-reaching health care changes can be good politics as well as good policy.
They also hope GOP-led opposition has peaked. But that’s far from clear, and some Republicans are eager to hand Obama his first major defeat.
A new CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 53 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of health care, while 44 percent approve. In March, far more people had approved than disapproved.
A separate Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday found that more Americans oppose the Democrats’ health care proposals than support them. But more than half are confident that Obama will do the right thing regarding health care.
That compares with 45 percent who have at least a fair amount of confidence in Congress’ Democratic leaders regarding health care, and 39 percent who have confidence in GOP congressional leaders.
Liberal groups are holding hundreds of events in a bid to show that a robust overhaul is more popular than August’s news reports would suggest.
The message lawmakers will hear when they return to Washington “will be very different than what they heard when August started,” said Jacki Schechner of Health Care for America Now. One idea her group will stress, she said, is that the politically smart vote, even in toss-up districts, will support widespread changes meant to expand health insurance coverage and options.
Some Democrats say congressional leaders will have to trim more costs from the health bills even though that would antagonize liberals and make it harder to cover uninsured people, one of Obama’s top goals.
“That’s the kind of thing we’re going to look at,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the leadership who is tasked with getting his colleagues re-elected.
Republicans approach Labor Day feeling upbeat about the ground they gained during August.
“After a disastrous month at home, the fact that Democrats’ new health care strategy is to hide in Washington from the people who elected them to get health care passed shows what bad shape they’re in,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
Associated Press writer Mike Glover in Iowa contributed to this report.
Photo: Sen. Charles Grassley