WASHINGTON — As part of the new push from the White House to try to highlight the benefits of Obamacare amid the troubled rollout of the law, a group of House and Senate Democrats are holding daily phone calls with administration officials to coordinate the messaging of the day and serve as a communications "strike team" on the Hill.
The House Democratic team began the calls with the administration three weeks ago, and the Senate joined them this week in putting together a group for the effort, according to a House Democratic aide.
The White House is trying to hit the reset button after a long month of bad news for President Obama's signature domestic achievement. As Politico reported Monday, the administration will tout different benefits of the law daily and members of Congress will echo those messages on the Hill with floor speeches and press events. For example, Wednesday's theme will focus on preventive care, and House Democratic women will hold a call to speak about the law's benefits for women's preventive services.
Rep. Steve Israel, who chairs the Democratic political arm in the House and is on the "strike team," said the White House needed to talk more about the law's benefits but also remind the public that House Republicans haven't presented solid plans to replace the law they want to repeal.
"They knew they needed to be more aggressive on this," he said. "They also need to be, and one of the points that I made, is they have to do a better job not only talking about the successes of the Affordable Care Act but the fact that Republicans are advocating a repeal that will increase costs, bring us back to a broken system, that leads to bankruptcy. "
In addition to Israel, members of the House Obamacare response team include Reps. Donna Edwards, Xavier Becerra, Rob Andrews, Rose DeLauro, Jared Polis, Matt Cartwright, Doris Matsui, Keith Ellison, Nydia Valasquez, Jan Schakowsky, and Henry Cueller.
Senate Democratic leadership, including Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin, will lead the charge in the Senate and will be joined by Debbie Stabenow, Chris Murphy, Sheldon Whitehouse, Tom Harkin, Max Baucus, Barbara Boxer, Tim Kaine, and Angus King, according to a source familiar with the group.
The headlines in recent weeks have not been good for Democrats. Millions of Americans have received cancellation notices from their health insurance companies, violating a key promise from the president that if "you like your plan you can keep it." The rollout caught congressional Democrats off guard, and strained relations between the administration and the Hill. Democrats are hoping the strategy to highlight the benefits and a pledge to "fix" the problems with the law could help shift some of the public opinion in their favor.
"A lot members think we should be on offense about this. The GOP doesn't have a counterproposal," said Rep. Patrick Murphy, one of the GOP's top targets for 2014. "This isn't perfect but it's better than what we had, lets talk about the benefits… let's talk about the wins in this instead of just defending."
But Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, another member of the House Obamacare communications team, argued that the new push from the White House and Democrats was not about trying to "go on offense" but helping more people understand the law.
"It's not a matter of taking offense or defense on this, it's just a matter of making it work," he said.
Administration officials also spoke with Democratic caucus members on Tuesday morning to update them on the progress of the errors with the website. Even some of the politically vulnerable Democratic rank and file seemed somewhat relieved at what they heard.
"They are making progress. Everyone was very disappointed with the rollout but cautiously optimistic that they are getting it together," said Murphy. "All hands are on deck, trying to fix it to get it right."
Republicans pounced on the news Tuesday, making light of the effort with a Twitter hashtag.
"President Obama and House Democrats are attempting to do in three weeks what they couldn't do in three years: convince voters that Obamacare isn't a massive failure," said Matt Gorman, the rapid response director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "As it raises premiums and cancels plans, we look forward to talking about the law even more than Democrats do."