In a White House blogger conference call this evening, David Axelrod and Nancy-Ann DeParle fielded questions from a vigorous core of bloggers on the healthcare reform bill.
To get the wonky part of the discussion over early, I asked whether the White House was working as promised to get the annual caps loophole out of the Senate bill. After a rather convoluted answer from DeParle, yes and no. The CBO says it has to be in there until the exchanges open to "keep everyone's premiums from being raised," but would be removed once the exchange starts.
Then the political questions started coming. The upshot: though they'd like to "get it done as soon as we can," DeParle says there are things that need to be improved and moved toward the House bill, particularly affordability, and she indicated that they were not pressing for a ping-pong of the Senate bill and expected a conference, but "not a year-long conference."
It got more interesting when Jonathon Singer asked Axelrod a question inspired by Atrios: if Howard Dean was insane to argue for defeating this bill, did that sentiment apply to Ben Nelson? Without directly answering the question, Axelrod said that they were working hard to convince Sen. Nelson that this bill would be good for the people of Nebraska, and
"I'm not professionally qualified to judge insanity and maybe I should have used a different word," Axelrod said, and he noted that "everybody's a little on edge at this point" in the long legislative battle. He also stressed his respect for allies in the "progressive community," but reiterated his view that it would be "wrongheaded" to squash all of health care reform at this point, which is "infinitely better" than the status quo.
Asked about a dip in polling by Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, Axelrod reiterated his argument that the White House was focused on legislative progress, not polling or approval ratings. "We're not here to husband our poll numbers like a trophy on a shelf," he responded, and essentially rebuffed the argument that White House compromising has reduced enthusiasm and support from Obama's base.
Gina Cooper followed up, asking that, since DeParle had indicated that they preferred the House bill, "What is it that needs to be done to further pull the bill in the direction it needs to go?" and pushed on the issue that a good portion of the Democratic base also wanted this bill to move much more in the direction of the House bill. Axelrod pushed back, presenting the false choice that has prevailed in the reaction we've seen in the last few days that it was either this current compromise or the status quo. When pushed on the question of the large enthusiasm gap and loss of support from the left as evidenced by the latest NBC/WSJ poll, Axelrod answered, "The President feels his job is to be faithful to the country."
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