Video: Healthcare overhaul

updated 5/13/2009 4:41:35 PM ET 2009-05-13T20:41:35

The White House scrambled Wednesday to get Democrats behind a unified message of affordability and choice on health legislation amid concerns that Republicans could scare the public with images of a health care system run by bureaucrats.

President Barack Obama used his bully pulpit for the third straight day to reinforce his commitment to reshaping the nation's health care system to bring down costs and extend coverage to 50 million uninsured people.

At his side, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated her pledge to bring a health care overhaul bill to the House floor before August.

'Message is important'
The White House dispatched top political adviser David Axelrod to Capitol Hill to meet behind closed doors with Senate Democrats on selling health care reform to voters.

Senators emerged from the meeting in agreement that messaging was key. Affordability and choice would be emphasized. The issue of coverage for the uninsured would be tied to affordability for all. The message, for example, would be that uninsured people drive up costs when they go to emergency rooms for routine care.

"Message is important," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., told reporters after the Axelrod meeting. "How you express things. Whether it's 'universal' or 'everybody gets coverage.'"

Last week political strategist Frank Luntz gave Republicans detailed advice on how to attack the Democrats' health plan, even though it doesn't yet exist in anything approaching final form.

Luntz's advice included the use of lines like "a committee of Washington bureaucrats will establish the standard of care for all Americans."

Luntz's memo to Republicans served as "an interesting catalyst for us," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

"This is an effort to coordinate our messaging so we present a health care reform effort that the American people trust," Durbin said.

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said, "There was some unease that we didn't have a strategy so (Axelrod) was coming up to reassure senators that they do have a strategy."

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As part of that strategy the White House has streamlined its health reform goals, repackaging eight principles Obama outlined in February into three that he touts now: lowering costs, giving people more choices in health coverage and providing affordable care for all).

Health care and the deficit
Obama and his congressional supporters want to avoid the mistakes that President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, made during the 1990s when their health care bill failed after opponents defined it in a way that caused voters to fear they might lose the health coverage they already had.

Obama appeared at the White House on Monday with health industry officials who once opposed an overhaul to proclaim their commitment to reining in their own costs. On Tuesday, it was a meeting with business leaders to hear their health strategies for their employees.

Video: Bipartisan health reform But Tuesday also saw the release of a report showing looming deficits in the Medicare government health insurance program for the elderly — providing Republicans fresh ammunition to attack Obama's health care goals as too costly amid ballooning government spending and deficits.

Obama was quick to address such criticism Wednesday.

"We've had a lot of discussions in this town about deficits, and people across the political spectrum like to throw barbs back and forth about debt and deficits," the president said.

"The fact of the matter is the most significant driver by far of our long-term debt and our long-term deficits is ever-escalating health care costs," he said. "And if we don't reform how health care is delivered in this country, then we are not going to be able to get a handle on that."

Pelosi voiced the same message.

"Health care reform is entitlement reform, and this is about cost — taking down the cost of health care to the Americans, to our economy and to our budget," she said after she met with Obama along with the chairmen of the three House committees with jurisdiction over health care.

But Democrats are also confronting divisions in their own party. Hundreds of nurses swarmed Capitol Hill on Wednesday to call for "single payer" — or government-run — health care, and demand "no" votes from liberal lawmakers on anything falling short. Congressional leaders on health care have taken single payer off the table as politically impractical.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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