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White House relies on core healthcare team

President Obama's overhaul hinges on six crucial individuals and their skill at negotiating behind closed doors. Now Rahm Emanuel, Nancy-Ann DeParle and the others will see if their efforts pay off.

October 21, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — Peter R. Orszag, the White House official steeped in budget detail, is now so at home in the Capitol that he freely grabs Coke Zeros from the Senate Finance Committee's private stash when he talks healthcare costs with aides.

Nancy-Ann DeParle, who joined the administration after a career that included running Medicare, is routinely hooked into a nightly 9 o'clock conference call for legislative staff.

And nearly every week, presidential aide Jim Messina eats the same steak-and-fries plate at the same table in the same restaurant with his old boss, Sen. Max Baucus -- the man responsible for the centrist bill that will shape the final healthcare plan.

Months ago, when President Obama made healthcare his top domestic priority and picked the White House team to make it happen, he selected individuals for just this moment -- not for the beginning or the middle of the campaign, but for the end of the fight.

That time has arrived for Obama and for the six people he chose. With deep ties to Capitol Hill, the team is designed for the inside game unfolding now in House and Senate offices. Their job includes gathering intelligence, assessing what lawmakers want and devising compromises to win over balky members without alienating others.

But their paramount goal has been -- and remains -- to keep the process moving irrepressibly forward and on a practicable track. They believe that letting it bog down or veer in some damaging direction, even for a moment, could doom the whole effort.

The core group consists of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, legislative affairs director Phil Schiliro, communications expert Dan Pfeiffer, Orszag, Messina and DeParle. Each brings particular experience and skills to the task. Each is first and foremost an inside player, comfortable operating behind the scenes.

The administration suffered some setbacks because of that focus during the spring and summer, when none of the six took on the role of a public surrogate for Obama.

But the White House survived the early pummeling, and the emphasis on the inside game has paid off more recently.

"The key factor in all major legislation, particularly healthcare, is momentum," Pfeiffer said. "Healthcare is a boulder: You're either pushing uphill or downhill. We've reached the top, we're headed downhill now, and we want it to stay that way."

The mission is changing, however. Where before the focus was on committees, the battle is moving to the House and Senate floor. Now, Obama's crew will be at the table with lawmakers behind closed doors, crafting compromises to meet attacks from a determined Republican minority and well-financed industry groups.

Obama will play an important role, phoning wavering legislators and trying to coax them to vote yes. But success also hinges on the negotiating savvy of the team.

"All of us are known," Emanuel said in an interview. "We've been through a lot together. We don't start from scratch, either inside or in dealing with the Senate and House. . . . You're in a business of relationships: knowing what people can and can't do, explaining things and [ascertaining] what they care about."

None of this looks to be easy. The White House wants to pass a healthcare bill with a 60-vote majority in the Senate, which would forestall a filibuster. It is up to Emanuel and company to hit that target.

Though there is ample overlap, each member of Obama's healthcare team has a different focus. Emanuel oversees the operation. A former congressman from Chicago, he describes himself as a negotiator, but he is also deeply involved in policy, political strategy and communication.

As an illustration of his role, twice over the past month he spoke to union leaders and asked them not to publicly criticize the healthcare legislation advancing in the Senate. He succeeded the first time and was rebuffed the second.

Orszag is the resident budget whiz. A congressional aide recalls watching him page through a fat, dog-eared copy of the U.S. tax code one Sunday in a Senate office, during a conversation about the crucial and politically sensitive question of how to pay for the healthcare plan.

But Orszag's staff also describes his human side. One night in August he had dinner at a Greek restaurant in Portland, Maine, with Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe. He mentioned that he was going to climb New Hampshire's Mt. Washington the next day. Snowe warned him to be careful, and Orszag, after reaching the summit, sent her an e-mail to assure her he was OK.

When the Senate Finance Committee voted to pass a healthcare bill last week, Snowe was the lone Republican to vote yes.

DeParle, a former healthcare advisor to President Clinton, has embedded herself in the Capitol. When Obama hired DeParle, he told her he wanted her to be the "point guard" of the healthcare team.

The goal seems to be ubiquity -- blanketing Congress with White House aides.

By her count, DeParle has met one-on-one with 135 people, part of a strategy she mapped out with Schiliro.

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