The White House strikes back
Thu Jul 16, 5:52 am ET
On the defensive over the economy and health care, the White House is shooting back with a double-barreled message for its critics and skeptics.
To Republicans who say the stimulus isn’t working: Back off.
To moderate Democrats wary of health care reform: We’re watching you.
Earlier this week, the administration launched a coordinated effort to jam Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican who’s argued that the government should “cancel the rest of the stimulus spending.” No fewer than four Cabinet secretaries wrote to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer — also a Republican — to ask her if she agreed with Kyl that it was time to turn off the state’s stimulus spigot.
“If you prefer to forfeit the money we are making available to your state, as Sen. Kyl suggests, please let me know,” wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. For good measure, he attached a three-page addendum listing each of the Arizona projects paid for by the $521 million the state is getting.
Brewer knew she’d been thrown a high, hard one.
“The governor is hopeful that these federal Cabinet officials are not threatening to deny Arizona citizens the portion of federal stimulus funds to which they are entitled,” her spokesman said in a statement. “She believes that would be a tremendous mistake by the administration. And the governor is grateful for the strong leadership and representation that Arizonans enjoy in the United States Senate.”
The administration took a gentler approach with its own Wednesday, when Organizing for America, President Barack Obama’s campaign-in-waiting, launched ads in a handful of states aimed at pushing centrist Senate Democrats to get behind health care reform. The ads don’t identify their targets by name, and they talk up the urgency of passing a bill without talking down its skeptics.
“It’s time for health care reform,” implores a woman in the ad who’s struggling with health care bills because of her son’s cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
The two different approaches — a fist to the nose and a gentle elbow nudge — reflect a White House that increasingly recognizes the political stakes at play in reviving the economy and passing health reform this year.
At the White House Wednesday, Obama stressed the need for speed, saying that Wednesday’s approval of a bill by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee should “provide the urgency for both the House and the Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August recess.”
Republicans are hammering the White House and its allies in Congress on the $1 trillion Congressional Budget Office price tag for the House health care plan and the tax on the wealthy that some Democrats would use to pay for it. At the same time, polling suggests that the GOP is making a dent with its arguments that the Democrats are spending too much with too little to show for it.
The coordinated assault against Kyl came after weeks of frustration in watching GOP members of Congress trash the stimulus as ineffective while their own states and districts received millions in funding thanks to the act. In some cases, congressional Republicans have even sought to claim credit for the money in a bill they opposed.
There hadn’t been an aggressive pushback,” lamented one administration official.
So after seeing Kyl and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) again paint the legislation as a failure on Sunday talk shows, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel directed that the letters from the Cabinet secretaries be sent to Brewer, according to two administration officials.
And then the DNC made sure other Republicans saw the message being delivered to Arizona by touting the letters.
“If Republicans want to bash job creation in their own home states for political purposes, that’s their choice, but we aren’t going to hesitate to point out that they are putting their party’s political strategy above good jobs for the people they were elected to represent,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan. “And we sure as hell aren’t going to let Republicans or their allies get away with misleading anyone about the jobs being created by the recovery act.”
A senior administration official put it plainly: “You can either be for the recovery act or against it.”
Kyl responded by accusing the White House of threatening his state.
“It’s unfortunate that President Obama and his administration seem unwilling to debate the merits of the stimulus bill and acknowledge its shortcomings,” the senator said in a statement. “Instead, they have resorted to coordinated political attacks with the [DNC] and the politicization of departments of government by using Cabinet secretaries to issue thinly veiled threats to the governor and the people of Arizona.”
Not surprisingly, the administration is taking a more subtle approach in pushing Democrats on health care.
While acknowledging the 30-second ads going up in eight states are largely aimed at its own senators, White House aides and other Democratic officials say the spots and coordinated grass-roots push by the president’s political apparatus are less about pressuring than providing air cover for the tough vote.
“Senators in these states are key voices in this debate, and with this ad and with all that we are doing on the ground we want them to know — and all their colleagues to know — that they have the support of their constituents to do the right thing and reform health care, consistent with the president’s principles, this year,” said Sevugan.
Obama aides no longer feel it’s enough to have only third-party groups airing ads that push health care reform in key states and are now demonstrating how much the administration is invested in getting a bill.
“We’re in a different place now,” said one official.
"The fight has been [joined],” said another, pointing to the “crucial” next weeks before the congressional recess to explain why.
Just how much the ads will sway Democratic senators remains to be seen, though. When asked about them Wednesday, some of the moderates being targeted responded with a collective shrug befitting the mild nature of the commercials.
“It’s fine with me,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the Finance Committee. “Nothing is unusual anymore — it’s been happening for years. Every time there is a major issue that comes before Congress, they run ads in my state, so this is absolutely standard procedure.”
Asked if it was productive for Obama to run the ads, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said: “It really doesn’t matter to me literally one way or another.”
She added: “When the president has a health care plan, I’ll be happy to support it, but he doesn’t have one right now. The president doesn’t have a plan right now. Congress is putting plans together, and we are debating every different aspect of it.”
Lisa Lerer and Eamon Javers contributed to this story.
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