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Now Democrats must sell health plan to voters

With passage looking likely for the Senate healthcare measure, Democrats facing reelection next year must pacify an impatient electorate. Republicans plan to campaign on healthcare too.

December 22, 2009|By Peter Nicholas

Reporting from Washington — With a healthcare overhaul inching closer to reality, Democrats looking to next year's midterm elections plan to market the bill as a way to help voters who are focused more on unemployment and the economy.

The chances of passing healthcare legislation rose significantly Monday, with a Senate vote that put it on track to clear the chamber by Christmas. And so party strategists are shifting gears: "We can't just pass it," said pollster Celinda Lake. "We have to sell the plan."

A sour public mood may make matters tough for Democrats, whose comfortable congressional majority will be at risk. Recent polls have shown that voters are impatient with incumbents -- and that the economy is their overriding concern.

"They've been talking about everything but what voters are most concerned about," Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said of the Democratic leadership.

In the face of such arguments, Democrats intend to stress that jobs and healthcare, which accounts for one-sixth of the economy, are inseparable. The bill will allow businesses that have been burdened by rising insurance costs, proponents say, to become more competitive in a global economy.

In addition, party leaders hope to minimize concerns that many of the bill's provisions would not take effect until 2014. That is when, for example, a new health insurance marketplace would open, with the goal of making it easier for consumers to find policies.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are compiling lists of "immediate benefits" that would spring from passage of the bill, which still must emerge from the Senate and be reconciled with a version approved by the House.

One would be the small-business tax credit aimed at helping employers pay for coverage. Another immediate "deliverable" added by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) would ban denying coverage to children based on preexisting conditions. (Under the Senate bill, insurers would be barred in 2014 from denying coverage to adults based on preexisting conditions.)

Also, insurance companies would be prohibited immediately from setting lifetime benefit caps. Under the Senate bill, insurers also could not rescind a policy because the beneficiary is filing claims.

"While it will be a few years before the insurance exchange is set up, there are a number of very important protections that go into place right away," Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said Monday. "These are things that the majority of folks who have health insurance are very concerned about."

The Senate bill also would extend insurance coverage to 30 million additional people.

Democrats hope these provisions will resonate in a bad economy, when voters are worried about losing their jobs and seeing their coverage disappear.

Yet Republicans also see healthcare as a winning campaign issue, and they believe that the more Americans hear about the bill, the less they will like it. That is why they have been emphasizing the bill's tax increases and Medicare cuts -- and the cumbersome legislative process -- which voters tend to dislike.

A new CNN poll showed that, though the public's view of the Senate bill was improving, about 56% of respondents still opposed it; 42% supported it.

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, noted that amid the healthcare debate, GOP candidates for Senate are leading Democratic incumbents in several Democratic-leaning states.

"It goes back to the old [President] Clinton phrase: 'It's the economy, stupid,' " Walsh said. "We're talking about passing a bill that will raise taxes at a time when there's double-digit unemployment."

The Senate bill on Monday won a coveted endorsement from the American Medical Assn. But as Democrats savored their legislative victory, Republicans began complaining about special deals that had been cut to bring the final Democratic senators on board.

Those included $100 million to pay the full cost of expanding Medicaid in Nebraska, home of Sen. Ben Nelson, the last to join fellow Democrats in backing the bill. A deal given to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) exempted 800,000 seniors who might have lost benefits under Medicare Advantage plans.

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Janet Hook in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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