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As healthcare debate heats up, alliance shows strain

AGREEMENT FAR OFF 'We're moving down from 30,000 feet . . . to 1,000. The next thousand is bumpy.' - Andy Stern, service employees union. AGREEMENT FAR OFF
"We're moving down from 30,000 feet . . . to 1,000. The next thousand is bumpy." - Andy Stern, service employees union.
By Julie Hirschfeld Davis
Associated Press / February 17, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Labor unions and business groups have teamed up in a multimillion-dollar national lobbying campaign to pressure President Obama and Congress for big changes in the nation's healthcare system. But as they get down to the specifics, their strange-bedfellows alliance is quietly at odds.

After spending two years and more than $20 million to promote the idea, collaborators in the Divided We Fail coalition - a project of the seniors lobby AARP, the service workers' union, and groups representing small business and the Fortune 500 - are indeed divided over key elements of how to fix healthcare.

Its members agree that something should be done to revamp healthcare in the United States, and there's consensus on a vague set of general principles that include making coverage more accessible, affordable, and efficient. But they differ over important details, including what roles the government and private businesses should play.

The emerging rifts highlight how difficult it will be for Obama and the Democrat-run Congress to deliver what they say they are committed to: a healthcare overhaul that would guarantee everyone affordable coverage.

They also illustrate the limits of one of lobbyists' favorite tactics: banding together with partners to try to build support for a top priority. Such alliances are born and die all the time in Washington, often falling victim to internal disputes over policy. Even the ones that fizzle, however, can give those in charge a seat at the negotiating table.

If nothing else, "it's fantastic public relations," said Bob Laszewski, a healthcare policy consultant. "What you're doing is you're putting some political credibility, some political capital in the bank for [when] the tough days come."

Obama campaigned on, among other things, the promise that he would bring Democrats and Republicans together on healthcare and cut special interests out of the debate. Proposed changes would stall as they have in the past, he said in one TV ad last year, "unless we end the bickering and the lobbyists."

The Divided We Fail group launched in 2007 with a similar message, stressing its bipartisan nature with a logo, a creature named Champ, which is an amalgam of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant. Its purple hue signifies a melding of the two parties' primary colors.

The coalition is led by a handful of Washington's most influential lobbyists - Bill Novelli of AARP, John J. Castellani of the Business Roundtable, and Dan Danner of the National Federation of Independent Business - as well as Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, among the most politically active groups in organized labor. Together, their organizations spent $45 million lobbying Congress in 2008.

The group aired TV ads calling on the presidential candidates to embrace affordable, accessible health coverage, collecting pledges from more than two-thirds of Congress backing it, and holding events across the country to rally support. It recently launched its "drive for solutions," including a TV ad saying Obama is "ready to lead," and, "we're ready to help."

Because of their clout and their organizations' disparate memberships, its leaders argue, the coalition is uniquely positioned to make a public case for healthcare reform, privately lobby Congress on the plan, and ultimately sell it to voters.

"It's an inside-outside game," Novelli said.

They acknowledge, however, that keeping the coalition together is getting more difficult as Obama and Congress prepare to delve into specifics.

"We're moving down from 30,000 feet . . . to 1,000," SEIU's Stern said. "The next thousand is bumpy."

For instance, labor unions and liberal groups are pressing for a universal health coverage system in which the government provides insurance that competes with private plans. SEIU wants to give everyone health benefits similar to those given federal employees. It backs Obama's "pay or play" idea of forcing employers to either offer health insurance to their workers or pay a fee so they can get it elsewhere.

But the Business Roundtable and National Federation of Independent Business want a system based mostly on private health insurance and are against new requirements for employers. The roundtable's members include health-insurance giants Cigna, Aetna, and Humana, which would have to compete with the government if labor got its way.

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