White House Point Man Mends Obamacare Politics

Administration shake-up yields dividends on Capitol Hill

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Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just days after his return to the White House last month, Phil Schiliro sat down in the Capitol with a group of vulnerable Senate Democrats seething over the disastrous rollout of Obamacare. Weeks before they’d been riding high following the disastrous GOP-led government shutdown. Now they were fighting for their political lives and had openly considered breaking with the President on his signature issue.

For Schiliro, the meeting was an important test. The legislative tactician who spearheaded President Barack Obama’s most significant legislative achievements in the first term was less than two weeks into a temporary job in the West Wing with a singular mission: fix the disastrous politics of Obamacare for panicking congressional Democrats. Under nonstop fire from Republicans and facing a potential revolt on its Democratic flank, the White House needed to get things back on track.

According to some Democrats on the Hill, it’s working. “Phil is very accessible, very responsive” says Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews of New Jersey. “It’s clear he has the ear of decisionmakers on substance, and that matters to the members,” he adds.

The Dec. 18 meeting, together with a host of other interactions, has helped mend the sometimes dysfunctional relationship between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Senators, who had long complained of White House neglect of their political plight, gathered with Schiliro to discuss additional fixes and improvements to Obamacare, messaging efforts around positive stories, and granting members credit for fixes they suggest that the White House implements, according to a Senate Democratic aide familiar with the meeting. The same week, Schiliro met with congressional staff, inviting around 30 health care policy wonks for a two-hour session at the White House, House Democratic aides tell TIME. It was one part meet and greet, and one part ego stroking — a rare event in the often distant Obama White House — designed to clear the air of concerns before the health care exchanges officially opened Jan. 1.

(MORE: Democratic Pollster: Slamming Obamacare in 2014 Is a ‘Trap’ for GOP)

Following a year in which every presidential priority from immigration to the budget was stymied by congressional gridlock and Democratic infighting clouded foreign policy debates, the White House turned to a familiar face. Obama’s first director of legislative affairs and a former top aide to Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman of California, Schiliro rose to be one of Obama’s “special advisers,” before opening a consulting firm focusing on nonprofits in New Mexico.

Schiliro’s hiring was a tacit acknowledgement by the White House that congressional Democrats needed more from the Administration than the technical fixes to Obamacare — as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is popularly known — like extensions, delays and exemptions, that the Administration had been offering. They needed a politically savvy friend, Democratic aides say, someone they knew and could trust who would listen to their concerns and, most important, help resolve them.

At the White House, Schiliro’s surprise, albeit temporary, return from New Mexico presaged a larger West Wing shake-up, which saw changes in the legislative-affairs team and the officials overseeing the implementation of the health care law in an effort to salvage the second term.

In December, Katie Beirne Fallon, White House deputy communications director who was an aide to Senator Chuck Schumer, earned the role of top congressional liaison, replacing Miguel Rodriguez, a longtime Obama aide who had trouble working with Hill Democrats. Fallon oversees the health care “strike team” that has organized Democratic messaging in defense of the law, including daily phone conversations with a couple of dozen White House and congressional staffers first thing in the morning, according to aides. The discussions focus on the message of the day and potential responses to Republican attacks.

Andrews, who spoke with Schiliro on New Year’s Day to mark the first day of coverage in the exchanges, says that Schiliro will orchestrate small group meetings to hear from members and resolve specific implementation problems in various districts, such as insurance companies removing doctors and hospitals from their networks, confusing Medicaid enrollment processes and the lack of Spanish materials. “I’m a big fan of Phil,” says Andrews. “I hope he stays a long time.”

(MORE: White House Touts More Than 2 Million Obamacare Sign-Ups)

Congressional aides point to other, subtler shifts in White House practices that they say indicate an attempt at bridging gaps with Congress. In December, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reversed course and granted temporary exemptions to the ACA’s individual mandate in response to a letter sent by six Democratic and independent Senators. A Senate Democratic aide complained that when the Administration announced in mid-November that insurers could continue to offer canceled plans for an additional year, a proposal similar to the one offered by Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat of Louisiana, there was “no mention” that it was an idea derived from Congress.

“Whereas later, improvements and communications have been made, the White House and HHS are properly crediting the folks who came up with this idea in their announcement,” said the aide, who cited a new “culture of outreach.”

Obama has been criticized for failing to cultivate a connection with congressional lawmakers since before he even took office. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, a driving force in bringing Schiliro back into the Administration, made rebuilding ties, or in many cases building them for the first time, a priority. The new staff changes more closely align the West Wing toward McDonough’s vision for how the Obama White House should operate, Administration aides say.

“The Obama Administration has always had a hard time with this — they’ve rarely done a really good job at managing members of Congress and staff,” says a House Democratic aide. “What happens often is when there is a crisis, they quickly try to ramp up their coordination. Whether it’s Syria, the IRS, or whether it’s the ACA. And then, during noncrisis times, when we’re just trying to get regular information, the modes of communication are so much worse.”

“My sense is, I think they’ve finally gotten that, and they are trying to make this a more permanent thing instead of it just trying to be a patch job. Phil Schiliro fits that mold. And frankly Miguel Rodriguez — nobody knew who he was,” says the aide.

Even Republicans have noticed a difference. While far from keeping an open line to the GOP, Republican aides say they’ve seen an improvement in the Administration’s openness in recent weeks.

MORE: President Enrolls In Obamacare Exchange

23 comments
mahoneyct
mahoneyct

It's clear that ACA has highlighted the White House's bad Congressional relations. There have been quotes from Blue Dogs that have been devastating, and the Blue Dogs have distanced themselves from the WH and the law. There is no evidence that this latest maneuver has improved Congressional relations with respect to ACA. The reporter makes that assertion, but can find only one congressman--who is not a Blue Dog--to support his conclusion. The article would be more revealing if it included the reactions of the Blue Dogs facing re-election this fall. I suspect that Mr Schiliro has failed to mollify their concerns.

davidtaylor1911
davidtaylor1911

All & only White countries are bringing in millions of non-Whites.

All & only White people are demanded to "mix" with them to prove they aren't "naziswhowanttokill6millionjews."

All & only White children are expected to become minorities and eventually extinct EVERYWHERE.

So called "anti-racists" are the ones demanding these anti-White policies. It's genocide.

Anti-racist is a codeword for anti-White.

manlyman
manlyman

And this what exactly to do with the fact that Obama is the biggest liar in presidential history?

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Rightists, always fighting the last war. 

TakingUpSpace
TakingUpSpace

Here's what Phil Schiliro can't even acknowledge and won't fix:


Young, healthy men will see higher premium increases than their female counterparts. This is true despite these facts:


Young men go to the doctor far less and cost their insurers far less than do young women, even factoring out women's reproductive-related visits. 


Young women will have more nonreproductive-related preventive services than young men. Check that out at healthcare.gov/what-are-my-preventive-care-benefits/#part=1 


In short, men will get fewer benefits than women after being forced to pay a bigger premium increase. That's how Obama will uphold his promise to eliminate "premium discrimination against women."


The crafters of Obamacare saw real discrimination against men as the safest way (because "men don't protest and they don't matter anyway") to largely pay for their healthcare program. See http://ideas.time.com/2013/08/23/women-should-pay-more-for-health-care/


If a law required women to pay the same as men for auto insurance, the streets would be over-run with angry protesters of both sexes. 


Democrats always know which gender of the ox to gore.


"Two takes on Obamacare’s discrimination against men" 

malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/does-obamacare-discriminate-against-men/


"Men Likely to Put Off the Doctor (Male Matters: Or: why men are charged less for health insurance)"

malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/men-likely-to-put-off-the-doctor-male-matters-or-why-men-are-charged-less-for-health-insurance/


"Who will pay more? Gender discrimination in health insurance costs" 

malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/a-brief-note-on-gender-discrimination-in-health-insurance-costs/


mrbomb13
mrbomb13

This article is nothing short of a grand admission that the Obama White House had absolutely no clue about how to effectively handle the Obamacare roll-out.  It is a further admission that Obama has no clue to build relationships with Congress, and is further evidence of his lack of skill as a politician.

If he needs "West Wing temps" like Schiliro for each major policy roll-out, than it's going to be a looong second term for the Obama White House.

ARTRaveler
ARTRaveler

@davidtaylor1911 We had a billboard in this state with the last sentence that got defaced by someone changing the last hyphenated words to "love"..  Be careful not to sit on your hat-that point can hurt.

barneydidit
barneydidit

@davidtaylor1911 Starting to look like rain...might want to keep an eye on that burning cross of yours...don't want it to go out. 

ARTRaveler
ARTRaveler

@manlyman Wow, no one will get anywhere near the total number of lies and deaths foistered off on the American people like the magic duo of Bush2 and Darth Vader Cheney.

barneydidit
barneydidit

@manlyman Says the guy who voted for George "They have WMD's, I'm sure of it" Bush. 

ARTRaveler
ARTRaveler

@mrbomb13 It is hard to build a relationship with people who hate your guts and got elected for specifically that position about the black man in THEIR White House.

jdhcon
jdhcon

@mrbomb13 I think gridlock will prevent the necessity of another major roll out.  In the 21st century the only skill required of a politician is to be elected or get re elected. Obama accomplished that. Obama can take a long vacation and do no harm.So now it is batten down the hatches until the good ship Hillary sails.  

jmac
jmac

@barneydidit @manlyman He was winking, barney!   You know that.  That's why he made a joke out of not finding them under that chair in the Oval Office. 


WarrenTenney
WarrenTenney

@barneydidit @RJWagner @manlyman Bush is not a filter for decision makers about intel. It doesn't matter what Bush may or may not have cherry-picked. Everyone agreed on that course of action based on their own assessment of the situation, and they had other outlets than Bush to go on. Hillary, Bill, and all the other Dems who waved the war banner right along with Bush weren't getting their info from Bush.


Yes, it appears we were wrong about WMDs, but face it, we were all wrong together.

barneydidit
barneydidit

@RJWagner@barneydidit@manlymanThat's the WHOLE POINT RJ- The intel was cherry-picked by Bush. Who Says? The Congressional Investigative Committee that determined in 08 that Bush "Substantially over-emphasized the threat posed by Saddam Hussein....and under played the intelligence discrepancies".

TakingUpSpace
TakingUpSpace

@WarrenTenney @Paul,nnto @TakingUpSpace  


Thanks, Warren. Paul, like ideological feminists, is under the influence of the apex fallacy.


"The apex fallacy is the idea that we use the most visible members of a group to make generalizations about the entire group; i.e., we see prominent men at the top of the pyramid and think all men are doing well, when in fact there are a great many at the bottom of the pyramid, too." 

-Alison Beard, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review: http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hbreditors/2013/03/whats_worse_glass_ceilings_or_glass_cellars.html


Paul might benefit from this "primer":


“The Doctrinaire Institute for Women's Policy Research: A Comprehensive Look at Gender Equality”

http://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/the-doctrinaire-institute-for-womens-policy-research/