Story written by KYLE CHENEY, RACHAEL BADE and JAKE SHERMAN at Politico
As Republicans near their long-sought repeal of Obamacare, their battle with congressional Democrats entered a new phase Wednesday, with both parties vowing to convince Americans the other side will be to blame if millions of people see their health care disrupted.
President Barack Obama huddled with Democrats to formulate a strategy that will inflict maximum political pain on Republicans as they move closer to a repeal vote — and to encourage Americans whose health care may be disrupted to pin their problems on the GOP. Meanwhile, Vice President-elect Mike Pence held court with Republican lawmakers and pleaded with them to tell their constituents "the truth": that Democrats are responsible for passing a broken law in the first place.
Obama and Pence spoke in similar terms as they framed the fight: "There are real lives at stake in this thing," Obama told Democrats, according to an aide in the room.
“We’re talking about people’s lives. We’re talking about families," Pence said at a news conference after his meeting with Republicans.
But both followed up their high-minded declarations by arguing that their political rivals are committed to implementing dangerous policies.
The dueling closed-door sessions portend a vicious PR battle ahead of President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration, after which he's planning immediate executive actions to help begin the process of scrapping the seven-year-old law. Pence and Trump want to show that they're moving toward repeal, but also want to continue to lay the responsibility for any problems at Democrats' feet.
"It’s important that we remind the American people of what they already know about Obamacare — that the promises that were made were all broken," Pence told reporters.
Pence also repeatedly referenced Trump's morning tweets in which he declared that Democrats "own" any problems with Obamacare.
On the Democratic side, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer promised that Democrats wouldn't aid Republican efforts to undermine and then replace Obamacare.
“They want to repeal it and then try to hang it on us. Not gonna happen. It’s their responsibility, plain and simple," Schumer said at a news conference.
He debuted a new Democratic rallying cry Wednesday, borrowing from Trump’s signature slogan to declare that by repealing the law, Republicans are going to “make America sick again.”
Trump and Republican lawmakers appear to be sensitive to those attacks, and they seem intent on avoiding any blame for post-repeal problems. In a series of Wednesday tweets, Trump warned fellow Republicans to not fall into the trap of taking ownership of the health law’s shortcomings and cautioned them "don't let the Schumer clowns out of this mess."
“Republicans must be careful in that the Dems own the failed ObamaCare disaster, with its poor coverage and massive premium increases......like the 116% hike in Arizona,” Trump tweeted, adding, “Also, deductibles are so high that it is practically useless. Don't let the Schumer clowns out of this web...massive increases of ObamaCare will take place this year and Dems are to blame for the mess. It will fall of its own weight - be careful!"
Moment later, Pence told Republicans in the closed meeting that they need to be aggressive about blaming Obama and the Democrats for Obamacare's demise — and highlight their own plans for a replacement strategy that rescues the health care market.
"Part of the thing we have to do is message the 'failure' of Obamacare," said Trump's top Hill ally, Rep. Chris Collins of New York. "We can talk about replacing, but it starts with America knowing the Democrats have failed… We’re coming in to fix that failure with a replacement plan that will work for all Americans."
Pence also said the Trump transition team is already working on executive orders to ensure a "smooth transition" out of Obamacare — but Congress will still need to pass legislation to help in the process. He did not specify what those executive orders may look like, but Collins said Pence suggested those orders could be signed as early as Trump's first day in office.
Pence's and Obama's visit to the Hill is the first formal engagement by the new Congress in the seven-year political war over Obamacare, and for the first time — with Trump preparing to enter the White House — Republicans hold a distinct upper hand. House Speaker Paul Ryan emphasized that efforts by Republicans to dismantle the president's health care law would be coupled with a plan for an "orderly transition" to a new Republican proposal — although that plan has yet to be formally unveiled. Ryan joined Pence in casting Democrats as to blame for any problems with the health care law.
"This law has failed. Americans are struggling. The law is failing while we speak. We need to reverse the damage that has been done," he said.
Democrats recognize that there’s little they can do to prevent the repeal, a top priority of Republicans in Congress even as they’ve struggled to develop a long-promised plan to replace the embattled health care law. But they’re preparing for a messaging battle to make Republicans feel the squeeze as they upend programs that have helped cover millions of previously uninsured Americans.
They're also vowing to muck up the repeal process in any way they can, promising to make life difficult for Republicans trying to come up with a replacement plan to swap out with Obamacare.
Fine-tuning these plots drove Wednesday’s meeting with Obama, who tried to give Democrats hope that they can protect Obamacare.
Obama told Democrats to create a national campaign ahead of the repeal vote to sell the positive aspects of Obamacare and pressure centrist Republicans to change course, senators said.
The best-case scenario for Democrats is that "there are enough Senate Republicans that realize that simple repeal without a replacement is irresponsible," said Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Obama emphasized that it's up to Democrats to lay out the consequences of repeal and that "tearing it down is relatively easy but tearing this down without harming tens of millions of people is incredibly hard," an attendee said.
"You should be proud of what we did," Obama said, according to the attendee. "Don't take any glee in their screwing it up."
One member said some Democrats were hoping Obama would come with a "silver bullet" but he didn't offer that, and said the meeting proved to be more of a pep rally.
After his meeting, when asked about what advice he gave to Democrats on how to fight, Obama responded: "Look out for the American people."
Beyond just blaming Republicans for Obamacare's shortcomings, Schumer said Democrats won’t be there to fix any problems Republicans create and they won't help them replace the law.
“If they think we’re going to come in and save their butts when they screw it up? No,” he told POLITICO in a Playbook interview that published on Wednesday.
Flanked by Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Obama entered his meeting with Democrats shortly before 9:30 a.m. and ignored a shouted question on whether Democrats should help Republicans replace Obamacare.
Pence on the other side of the Capitol was joined by a phalanx of key Trump aides, underscoring the apparent importance of Wednesday's meeting. Kellyanne Conway, Trump's former campaign manager and future counselor in the White House, was with Pence, along with Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, Marc Short, Trump's director of legislative affairs and Pence's own chief of staff, Josh Pitcock.