By Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Two years after President Barack Obama signed health care reform legislation — and with the U.S. Supreme Court about to consider a challenge from several states trying to overturn it — supporters and opponents of the controversial law are gearing up for a message war like it’s 2009.
At that time, Democrats, emboldened by a new president and big gains in Congress, pushed sweeping legislation to expand coverage for uninsured Americans, clashing with Republicans who branded the bill “Obamacare” and warned it would trigger an unprecedented intrusion by Washington into people’s medical decisions. Raucous crowds at town halls across the country that summer, many focusing on health care, captured the intensity of the debate. When Democrats muscled the final version of the bill through the House of Representatives in a late-night vote, not one Republican voted for it.
Obama signed his top legislative achievement into law on March 23, 2010, but by then the issue was already shaping up to be a central flashpoint in that year’s midterm elections. That November, Democrats were tossed out of the majority in the House after voters elected a new class of 87 Republicans who campaigned on repealing “Obamacare.”
GOP candidates for the 2012 presidential nomination have made rolling back the law a central promise of their campaigns.
Democrats stress benefits, argue warnings never happened
Congressional Democrats this week, with a major push from the White House, are planning a series of events to highlight the two major provisions of the law implemented in the last two years — rules extending health care coverage for those with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to remain on their parents’ plans until they turn 26.
The most controversial parts of the law — such as requiring all Americans to enroll in a health care plan or pay a penalty and setting up a federal health care insurance exchange, where people can compare and shop for plans — won’t go into effect until 2014.
Democratic aides admit that while certain key components of health care reform are having an impact on some, many Americans are only “vaguely aware” of them, as one aide noted, so the emphasis will be on showing what’s changed in two years.
Democrats will also argue that all the dire predictions GOP opponents warned about in 2009 haven’t materialized. Republicans said senior citizens would lose their health care coverage and private plans would be forced to impose massive hikes in premiums.
“None of those things have happened, and in fact good things have happened — so that is a help to us,” said one senior Democratic aide coordinating the week’s activities. “People are seeing the good things and the crazy things Republicans said were going to happen didn’t happen.”
Recently the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, acknowledged that health care reform was a liability for the party in the 2010 elections, but he said he believes polls now show that time and public awareness about the law will help Democrats on the ballot this November.
Each day leading up to Friday’s anniversary, Democrats and a coalition of outside health care advocates will focus on five specific themes, highlighting a different one each day. These include talking about benefits for senior citizens, lower costs for prescription drugs, expanded coverage for women and new insurance requirements to cover children and young adults as well as people with pre-existing conditions.
Supporters in Congress are expected to keep the message machine cranked up with press events featuring people talking about personal experiences with the law, links to facts about the law disseminated on social media, and speeches.
But because many in Washington have already made up their minds about the issue, Democrats and pro-health care groups will also target their message beyond the nation’s capital.
Top Cabinet officials will travel to events across the country to talk about how the law has worked so far, according to an Obama administration official. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will go to St Louis on Monday to discuss the law’s impact on senior citizens.
“We’re reaching out to see people out in their communities. This is part of our regular communication with the American people,” the official told CNN, emphasizing there’s been an ongoing effort in the last two years to educate consumers.
Obama hasn’t made major remarks on the topic recently, but his campaign has taken to social media in recent days to remind people of the law’s benefits.
In a tweet Friday, the president’s Twitter account gave a statistic about how many people would be affected by the law’s (officially called the Affordable Care Act) change on coverage: “@BarackObama The #ACA lifted lifetime caps on health care for 105 million Americans-so coverage will be there when they need it.”
GOP pushes for repeal, highlights ‘broken promises’
Republicans view the two-year anniversary and the three days of arguments over the health care law in the Supreme Court next week as golden opportunities to show the government is overreaching and to argue again that the law needs to be repealed entirely. With polls indicating the public still sharply divided on the issue, GOP aides said that showing the overall costs and impact on the nation’s deficit ties into their message that Obama isn’t focused on the economy and rising gas prices.
A memo from the Republican National Committee released Friday promised a two-week campaign: “Working with our allies on the Hill and in key battleground states, we’re spearheading an aggressive offense to draw attention to the failures and unpopularity of Obamacare.”
House and Senate Republicans are both promising to highlight what one senior GOP Senate leadership aide called the “broken promises” Democrats made about costs coming down and the deficit being lowered.
Leaders as well as rank-and-file GOP members will pen editorials for their local papers, head to the floor to make speeches deriding what they see as the law’s intrusive provisions and use social media to conduct “Twitter town halls” to engage voters around the country in the debate.
“Every Republican in the building is eager to talk about health care,” the senior GOP aide said.
House GOP leaders have also scheduled a vote this week to repeal a key component of the law known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board. The panel consists of 15 experts who are tasked with making recommendations on how to achieve the Medicare savings in the law that help offset new health care costs. Republicans argue the panel gives “unelected bureaucrats” more power over medical decisions than patients and their doctors and would result in “rationing” care.
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate, referred to this proposal as a “death panel,” arguing its decisions outweighed patients and doctors. But congressional Republicans have refrained from reviving the term so far.
While some Democrats have criticized the structure of the Independent Payment Advisory Board and are likely to vote to eliminate it, they oppose it mostly because it takes power from Congress and gives it to the executive branch. These Democrats still believe the health care law is working.
The House GOP’s campaign arm is also marking the occasion by running ads against a handful of House Democrats who voted against repealing health care when Republicans took over in January 2011.
Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, said the ads “will continue to hold Democrats accountable for cutting $500 billion from Medicare in order to pay for Obamacare.”
The same week health care approaches its second anniversary, House GOP Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin will also roll out his annual budget proposal. As it did last year, it’s expected to include a plan to make dramatic changes in Medicare to counter the program’s impact on the nation’s deficit.
Congressional Democrats are already honing in on that proposal, saying it shows Republicans are more concerned with continuing tax breaks for the wealthy than protecting care for senior citizens. The bitterly partisan battle on the GOP’s changes to Medicare promises to be as divisive as the debate over health care was two years ago.
Debate ramps up ahead of Supreme Court arguments
After Friday’s anniversary, the focus turns from Capitol Hill to the Supreme Court, which has scheduled three days of oral arguments on challenges to the health care law.
A coalition of health care advocacy groups that lobbied for the law in 2009 are planning events in more than 30 states starting this week to demonstrate how the law is working and to feature women, senior citizens and young adults who would be hurt if the law is repealed. Many of the events are slotted in swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and Ohio.
Groups that back the law have also rented out space in a church near the Supreme Court, where they will gather supporters to show public backing for the three days the high court will consider the case. They plan to hold daily press conferences to draw attention to personal health care stories.
Republicans plan a rally on Capitol Hill on March 27 featuring top GOP leaders and other opponents. The event is timed for the same day the court is scheduled to hear arguments about whether the law’s requirement that all individuals enroll in a health care plan or pay fines is constitutional.