NOLA Bound: Searching for presidential leadership -- again -- on health care

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports:

Wait -- you mean there's not a health care bill yet? The triumph of the Senate Finance Committee's vote isn't wearing particularly well. House liberals and labor unions are in open revolt over the public option. Centrist Democrats say they aren't necessarily on board, after all. Friends are enemies and enemies aren't friends, threats are promises and promises begin to sound like threats. And -- just like before -- with lots of sharp sticks around, someone has to blink. Amid the growing sense that the hard choices are still being delayed, both sides (if there are only two) are looking for presidential leadership -- and the team making the rounds on Capitol Hill is making itself known. But this is not a health care day for the White House: The president makes a quick stop in New Orleans Thursday morning, then flies to San Francisco for a DNC fundraiser (who let the schedule stack up like that?). "From wheels-down to wheels-up, the stopover will clock in at three hours and 45 minutes, enough time to visit the only school to reopen in the Lower 9th Ward since Katrina, conduct a town hall at the University of New Orleans, and grab a to-go lunch order from Dooky Chase," Jonathan Tilove reports in the Times-Picayune. Could John McCain have gotten away with this? "The praise for Mr. Obama's work has, in recent days, been eclipsed by criticism of his visit," The New York Times' Campbell Robertson reports. "Mr. Obama, who visited the city five times during his presidential campaign and attacked Mr. Bush for his response to Hurricane Katrina, is spending only a few hours here -- at the charter school and at a campus of the University of New Orleans, where he is holding a town-hall-style meeting -- before flying to San Francisco for a fund-raiser. He is not visiting the storm-ravaged areas in Mississippi." ABC's Karen Travers and Matt Jaffe: "Before the president even steps foot on the ground in Louisiana, critics in the region have taken aim at the administration on several fronts: They fault him for waiting nine months before going to New Orleans, staying for only four hours and not going to any of the other states affected by the devastating 2005 storm, such as Mississippi and Alabama." "Not exactly a lit city square in prime time, but the comparisons to Bush are have arrived anyway," writes Time's Michael Scherer. (And Thursday night marks the start of the NLCS -- a series that we now have an additional rooting interest in. The "Goatee Gamble" is a go -- more on that below.) Back on health care -- does it get harder now? "[Committee] success has spawned a furious scramble among insurers, labor unions and others to protect their interests in the weeks before the House and Senate begin voting on their final healthcare bills," The Los Angeles Times' Noam Levey reports. "The maneuvering increasingly has turned into a zero-sum game among groups that for much of the year had appeared to work together to advance the healthcare overhaul. Now, any financial gain by one group will likely correspond with losses by the others." "Even as Democrats and Obama celebrate a victory in the Senate Finance Committee, where Chairman Max Baucus' health care bill passed by a 14-9 vote Tuesday, they face what could be a tougher battle ahead," ABC's Jonathan Karl and Huma Khan report. "Democrats have to resolve differences among the five different bills in the House and Senate, try to garner some Republican support and keep the one lone Republican who voted with Democrats." Remember when this was all going to be on C-SPAN? "Adding to the drama is the secrecy: The White House-Senate session took place behind closed doors in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's Capitol office, and few clues were available about the talks' progress, let alone specifics," McClatchy's David Lightman reports. Your power players: "Now two people will have to choose. The fate of the health-care bill is largely in the hands of President Obama and Sen. Olympia Snowe," E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his column. "A bill reflecting Snowe's core concerns would be better in most respects than a bill that didn't, and how she chooses to use her influence will owe a great deal to how Obama chooses to influence her. It's another reason why Obama needs to take ownership of a bill that he'll eventually own anyway." Still waiting on presidential leadership on this one: "One day after the Senate Finance Committee approved a measure without a ‘public option,' the question on Capitol Hill was how President Obama could reconcile the deep divisions within his party on the issue," Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports in The New York Times. "Two senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House looked favorably on the Snowe plan. But liberal Democrats were maneuvering against it Wednesday, arguing that Ms. Snowe, the lone Republican to vote in favor of the Finance Committee's bill, was gaining undue influence over the talks." Question: How, precisely, is this helpful to Senate Majority Harry Reid? Public lobbying from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on the public option: "If puts it in the final bill, in the combined bill, then you would need 60 votes to remove it. And there clearly are not 60 votes against the public option. And so we're urging him to do that, and he's seriously considering it." (Answer: It's not. "Perhaps Sen. Reid should consider giving Schumer the assignment to get 60 votes on the public plan of his choosing, since he says there is a groundswell of support for this idea," a source close to Reid tells The Note.) Dr. Dean's take: "This bill is a step forward procedurally and it scored well but it is not reform, and it will not help the Democrats in 2010," former DNC Chairman Howard Dean writes, at More from the left: "I think it is a waste of time for the White House and to some extent for leadership to continue to cater to one vote," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., on's "Top Line" Wednesday. "I venture to say that without a robust public option, a bill cannot get out of the House of Representatives." Even more from the left: "A coalition of labor unions is emerging as a leading critic of an $829 billion health care bill heading toward a Senate vote, complicating debate among Democrats over how to pay for the measure," USA Today's John Fritze reports. "We don't want to see our friends in labor not supporting it," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. (Ya think?) And even more from the left: "A few in Washington say they want to tax ‘Cadillac' health care plans, but those proposals would really tax the health care benefits of middle-class people," reads the new ad from Health Care for America Now, part of a new TV and print campaign launching Thursday. Over in the center: "If Democratic leadership hoped Republican Olympia Snowe's decision to cross party lines Tuesday would inspire her fellow middle-of-the-roaders, they were mistaken," Politico's Patrick O'Connor and Chris Frates report. "And the moderates' reluctance to commit showed just how far health reform still has to go, despite getting a boost from Tuesday's Senate Finance Committee vote." New landscape, or just some new props for the old set? "The fact that opponents and proponents now think passage is more likely than impasse marks another important step in the battle over health care," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "But it is clear that the arguments will not cease with the possible enactment of a bill. The debate will shift to a new arena, but it will not subside for some time." One vision: "Mr. Obama's problem is that his Magic Kingdom Health Care World is colliding with reality. There is a big cost to any large government expansion -- and the ways to cover the cost of Mr. Obama's plan are limited, unpopular, and sure to anger Americans once they are fully understood," Karl Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. Since that first study was such a success ... a new report from health insurers making the rounds on the Hill: "This time the study's sponsor is the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), rather than America's Health Insurance Programs. The hired gun accounting firm is Oliver Wyman, instead of PriceWaterhouseCoopers. But the message is the same as before: Pass reform, as currently envisioned, and insurance premiums will go way up," The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn writes. About as united as the Democrats: "Ron Williams, Aetna Inc.'s chief executive, has been working with the White House and Senate Finance Committee in an attempt to mend a rift between insurers and Democrats sparked by an industry-funded study critical of the measure," The Wall Street Journal's Avery Johnson and Janet Adamy write. Buying some tranquility: "President Barack Obama said he will press Congress to provide $250 payments to 57 million seniors, veterans and people with disabilities next year, a $13 billion effort to offset an expected announcement this week that there will be no cost-of-living increase in Social Security payments," Elizabeth Williamson and Henry J. Pulizzi write in The Wall Street Journal. "The proposed $250 payment is equivalent to a 2% increase for the average retiree receiving Social Security benefits, the White House said. Notably, it would act as additional economic stimulus at a time when the government is concerned about rising joblessness." About that deficit-neutral thing ... "Maneuvering to boost prospects for sweeping health care legislation, Senate Democrats hope first to win quick approval for a bill that grants doctors a $247 billion increase in Medicare fees over a decade but raises federal deficits in the process, officials said Wednesday," the AP's David Espo reports. "By creating a two-bill approach, Democrats intend to claim the more comprehensive health care measure meets President Barack Obama's conditions -- that it will neither add to deficits nor exceed $900 billion in costs over 10 years." OFA action, coming next week: "President Obama will rally grassroots Organizing for America volunteers next week with the goal of making 100,000 calls to Congress in support of health care," Christina Bellantoni reports at Talking Points Memo. "TPMDC has learned that while on political travel in New York Tuesday, Obama will join his most active supporters via Webcast into hundreds of ‘Time to Deliver' house parties arranged by OFA, the spinoff of his presidential campaign housed at the DNC." On Afghanistan -- a new idea in the debate: Arianna Huffington says Vice President Joe Biden should resign. "Well, how about making the mea culpa unnecessary?" Huffington writes. "Instead of saving it for the book, how about future author Biden unfetter his conscience in real time -- when it can actually do some good? If Biden truly believes that what we're doing in Afghanistan is not in the best interests of our national security -- and what issue is more important than that? -- it's simply not enough to claim retroactive righteousness in his memoirs." Is Defense Secretary Robert Gates showing his cards? "From my vantage point, the tea leaves are getting much easier to read in the mug marked ‘secretary of defense,' " ABC's Martha Raddatz reports. "While Gates has not said flat out that he is supporting McChrystal's request for additional troops he appears to be leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that lead to that conclusion." Raddatz continues: "On everything including the footprint, his support for McChrystal, his feelings about the momentum being with the Taliban, the symbiosis between the Taliban and al Qaeda, and his strong support of counterinsurgency operations over the years, it seems pretty clear that he is not siding with Vice President Joe Biden. It appears that Gates is hiding his inclination towards adding more troops in plain sight." Seeking the middle? "As the Obama administration debates whether to shift its aims in Afghanistan, officials at the Pentagon and National Security Council have begun developing ‘middle path' strategies that would require fewer troops than their ground commander is seeking," Julian E. Barnes and Christi Parsons report for the Los Angeles Times. "Measures under consideration include closer cooperation with local tribal chiefs and regional warlords, using CIA agents as intermediaries and cash payments as incentives, said current and former officials who described the strategies on condition of anonymity." A senior statesman leaves a mark: "How much more will all this cost?" Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., demanded on the Senate floor Wednesday, per ABC's Jonathan Karl. "How much in dollars; how much in terms of American blood?" Writes Karl: "Speaking slowly and forcefully from his wheelchair, Byrd directly challenged counter-insurgency strategy proposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command." Karl Rove, to ABC's Diane Sawyer, on "Good Morning America" Thursday: "I'd be saying, pay very close attention to the people you have put in command of the operation in Afghanistan." And did the Bush administration under-supply the mission in Afghanistan? "These answers become clear in retrospect," Rove said. (And Rove thinks Rush Limbaugh was wronged by the NFL: "Buying a professional football team, or any kind of professional sports team, is a very odd enterprise," Rove said. "I think it's unfortunate. I think it's unfair. But it's frankly the sort of hardball politics that gets played in sports -- which is sort of odd, isn't it?") Senator Vilsack? "Christie Vilsack, the wife of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, sounds as if she may be the ‘mystery candidate' the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party said was poised to run for the U.S. Senate," Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson reports. Said Vilsack: "I think I'm qualified to serve, so time will tell." In New York City -- is there a chance this won't be a coronation after all? (Probably not.) "Mayor Bloomberg's campaign may look unbeatable - but some insiders see troubling signs that he could be tossed out of City Hall," the New York Daily News' Adam Lisberg reports. "They fear lingering voter anger about term limits, low-turnout primaries, passionate anti-Bloomberg Democrats and complacent Bloomberg supporters could combine to create the biggest political upset of a generation." New lobbyists on the block: Playoff PAC, founded by former McCain campaign counsel Matthew Sanderson, dedicated to killing the BCS. "Its sole purpose is to ratchet up political pressure to change college football. You can visit to learn more about the nuts and bolts," Dick Harmon reports in the Deseret News. "This PAC has already recruited supporters and sponsors from states that are home to BCS schools in Georgia, Texas and California and will announce endorsements from elected officials in some of those states in addition to Utah, Idaho and Hawaii next week." New bookmark: the redesigned Air America Website. With inspiration from GQ, and an assist from Ana Marie Cox, "Top Line" we explored the least powerful people in DC. GQ came up with 50, but we have only 10. And the "Goatee Gamble" is a go. If Philadelphia beats Los Angeles in the NLCS, NBC News' chief White House correspondent (and Dodgers fan) Chuck Todd will shave his goatee. If the Dodgers are victorious, ABC News' senior White House correspondent (and Phillies fan) Jake Tapper will grow one. But there's a wimp-out clause (though not a particularly cheap one): The loser can opt out of the facial hair action by donating $1,000 to the winner's charity of choice. The Kicker: "Arlen, at least, has had the courage to admit that he was a Democrat all along." -- Rush Limbaugh, during his Wednesday radio show, on Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Arlen Specter. "Prevention and wellness." -- Sen. Dick Durbin, with a laugh, on the parts of health care reform lawmakers definitely agree on. For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note's blog . . . all day every day:
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