President Obama, strategizing yesterday with congressional leaders about health-care reform, complained that liberal advocacy groups ought to drop their attacks on Democratic lawmakers and devote their energy to promoting passage of comprehensive legislation.
In a pre-holiday call with half a dozen top House and Senate Democrats, Obama expressed his concern over advertisements and online campaigns targeting moderate Democrats, whom they criticize for not being fully devoted to "true" health-care reform.
"We shouldn't be focusing resources on each other," Obama opined in the call, according to three sources who participated in or listened to the conversation. "We ought to be focused on winning this debate."
Specifically, Obama said he is hoping left-leaning organizations that worked on his behalf in the presidential campaign will now rally support for "advancing legislation" that fulfills his goal of expanding coverage, controlling rising costs and modernizing the health system.
In the call, leaders of both chambers expressed optimism that they will hold floor votes on legislation to overhaul the $2.2 trillion health system before Congress breaks in early August.
For his part, the president vowed to use his strong approval rating with voters to continue making the case for sweeping reform, according to one congressional staffer with knowledge of the conversation. Obama also hinted that efforts are under way to discourage allies from future attacks on Democrats, according to the source, who did not have permission to speak on the record about the discussion.
The White House had no comment on the president's call.
In recent weeks, liberal bloggers and grass-roots groups such as MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, Service Employees International Union and Progressive Change Campaign Committee have targeted Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.).
A fundraising video produced by Democracy for America suggests Landrieu is a "sellout" because she has received $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the health-care industry and has yet to endorse the concept of a government-run health insurance plan to compete against the private companies. The public-option concept, which Obama supports, has become a litmus test for many pro-reform activists who accuse the insurance industry of failing to deliver affordable, accessible care.
"Tell Senator Landrieu to support the people of Louisiana, not insurance companies," the spot concludes.
Founded by former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Democracy for America argues that inclusion of a Medicare-style public option in health-care legislation is "non-negotiable."
MoveOn, a Web-based political action committee that works to elect "progressive" leaders, intended to run commercials over the Fourth of July holiday criticizing Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) for her silence on the public option. But after she endorsed legislation crafted by Democratic colleagues on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that includes that provision, the group dropped its plans.
"This measure is the heart of health-care reform and is supported by MoveOn's 5 million members, as well as the majority of the American people," said MoveOn's executive director, Justin Ruben. "With the support of legislators like Senator Hagan, we can come closer to our goal of making quality health insurance accessible and affordable for everyone."
Health Care for American Now, a labor-based coalition of 1,000 groups, has organized a petition pressuring Feinstein to support legislation that includes a public option.
"We need a senator who is championing, not nay saying, the need for reform," the petition says. "We're hoping Sen. Feinstein becomes a 'champion' for the people of California and stands up for President Obama's health reform."
Richard Kirsch, who runs the coalition, said most of the group's ads are educational or focused generally on the need for broad-based change.
"We've been promoting reform and yes, asking members of the public to contact their senators," he said yesterday. "It's all in support of reform."
Feinstein said in an interview last week that she does support health reform but has concerns about the cost of legislation and the impact on her home state. She discounted the attacks as unhelpful and counterproductive.
Obama was joined on the call with lawmakers by White House health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, though he led most of the conversation. DeParle and White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina have been in intense negotiations with hospital representatives in the hope of extracting guaranteed spending reductions from the industry.