Lamar Alexander coordinates GOP offensive on health care

Posted on December 7, 2009

To understand Sen. Lamar Alexander's role in the ongoing debate in the Senate on health-care reform legislation, you have to go back to a floor speech Alexander made in July. "We are talking about Medicare cuts and spending grandma's Medicare money on somebody else," Alexander said back then. His comments received no press coverage. During the next six months, Alexander repeated some version of that phrase 13 more times during floor speeches. By last week, he had refined the message: "If we are going to take money from grandma's Medicare, let's spend it on grandma." Bingo. That comment was picked up by The Washington Post, USA Today, wire services and Capitol Hill publications. And Friday, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon came on the floor to offer assurances that "grandma is going to be just fine." As the conference chairman for Senate Republicans, the No. 3 leadership position, Alexander is sort of the offensive coordinator for his party — responsible for honing the GOP message in what will be a political and policy battle in the coming weeks. Coverage of his "grandma" rhetoric shows, he said, that the message — that the Democratic health plan would reduce spending on Medicare by about $500 billion over 10 years — is "penetrating the fog around Washington." "I think the health-care debate is starting to get through to the American people," Alexander said. He works to hone message Debate on the Senate Democrats' bill officially started last week. Alexander is part of leadership meetings every morning during the debate to discuss the day's goals and each afternoon to assess how well the plan was executed. At the weekly Republican caucus luncheon last Tuesday, he showed a compilation of clips of GOP senators on the floor and media coverage to demonstrate which messages were the most effective. The conference offices include radio and TV studios, and Alexander has worked with senators to use those to reach out directly to their constituents. With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Whip Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, he has helped divide the GOP senators into teams that focus their research and remarks on particular parts of the bill, such as proposed tax increases or increased costs to the states for expanding Medicaid coverage. Tennessee's other Republican senator, Bob Corker, is part of the broad health-care leadership team that meets with McConnell, Kyl and Alexander each day. "Our focus is to stay on the core message," Corker said. That message is that the health-care bill includes Medicare cuts, higher taxes and unfunded Medicaid mandates on the states. Republicans will continue to offer amendments to address these policy issues, but no major changes in the Democratic proposal are likely to pass. Instead, while the debate rolls along on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is working behind the scenes trying to make deals, largely with Democrats, to get the 60 votes needed for passage. "The debate is really about winning the hearts and minds of the American people," Corker said.