As Phil Schiliro arrived at his first meeting last week with House Democratic leaders to discuss selling Obamacare, he was greeted like family.
Schiliro, who spent most of his 26 years on Capitol Hill as a senior House aide, helped pass the 2010 Affordable Care Act as President Barack Obama’s legislative director. This month, the White House lured him back to Washington to help Democrats pitch the law to voters in the 2014 midterm elections.
“He was talking to us about how to coordinate our responses. We want to be in a better position to anticipate issues that arise,” said Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, who attended the Dec. 12, half-hour meeting led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. They also discussed “how our members could participate in making sure implementation could work more smoothly.”
Democrats are defending a six-seat majority in the U.S. Senate and must gain a net of 17 seats in the House to retake the control they lost in the 2010 elections, thanks in part to the freshly passed health-care law.
A Bloomberg National Poll last week showed 60 percent disapprove of the president’s handling of health care, the highest since the survey began asking the question in September 2009.
Those numbers are driven by the Oct. 1 dysfunctional debut of healthcare.gov, the website to sign up for coverage, and a wave of canceled non-compliant policies that turned a lie into Obama’s campaign promise that people could keep their plans if they liked them.
The Obama White House, attempting to reset its agenda following the fumbled rollout of the president’s health-care program, has re-enlisted seasoned hands such as Schiliro to improve the party’s chances of holding control of the Senate. If they fail and Republicans, as expected, hold the House, the president could spend the last two years of his presidency vetoing Republican-sponsored bills aimed at repealing Obamacare.
Yesterday, the White House named former Microsoft Corp. executive Kurt DelBene as manager of the health-insurance enrollment system, which includes the error-prone website. DelBene replaces Jeffrey Zients, Obama’s soon-to-be top economic adviser, whom the president had tasked with the job temporarily.
And just after Schiliro’s return last week, the White House chose as legislative director Katie Beirne Fallon, a former top aide to New York Senator Charles Schumer whose role is partly to reassure Senate Democrats about coordinated messages on health care.
The new team, which also includes as a special adviser John Podesta, onetime chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is “going to help so much in getting good political judgment in the White House,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in an interview last week on Political Capital with Al Hunt. Reid said he yelled with excitement upon hearing of Podesta’s hiring.
Schiliro declined to be interviewed for this article. “A law that guarantees coverage to millions of Americans, improves quality, and saves hundreds of billions of dollars is worth fighting for,” he said in a statement. “I hope to help with that effort.”
A Baldwin, New York, native, Schiliro, 57, began his career on Capitol Hill in 1982, after graduating from Long Island’s Hofstra University and Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. In 1992 and 1994, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in his New York hometown.
Much of his time on Capitol Hill was spent as California Representative Henry Waxman’s chief of staff. In 1994, when Waxman was chairman of Energy and Commerce’s health subcommittee, Schiliro helped coordinate hearings during which seven tobacco company executives testified under oath that nicotine wasn’t addictive.
While Waxman was chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Schiliro pushed for a congressional investigation of steroid use in Major League Baseball. He also helped organize an examination of the “friendly fire” death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, a former National Football League star.
In 2004, Schiliro switched chambers, spending a year as policy director for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
When Obama, a junior senator from Illinois, ran for president in 2008, Schiliro joined his campaign as congressional envoy. Within days of Obama’s election, the president announced Schiliro as his legislative director, a position he held until early 2011.
With a push to change financial regulations at the top of the agenda, Schiliro was willing to let then-Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd take the lead on the legislation, said Dodd’s former top aide, Edward Silverman.
“In that job you have to know when it’s time to listen and when it’s time to jump in. He gets that,” Silverman said. “You can’t always run around with your chest puffed out telling people ‘the president wants this!’ and expect good results.”
Schiliro’s first tenure with the White House was “one of the most productive legislative periods in our history,” Obama said in a 2011 statement. The president calls him “Third Way Phil” for his ability to find solutions to politically fraught situations, senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett told an audience at Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio, last year, according to the local newspaper.
Schiliro stepped back from the top legislative job in February 2011, serving as a senior adviser until the end of the year. He moved with his family to New Mexico, where he began a consulting business for nonprofits, a project interrupted when Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough asked him to come back.
“Phil’s got a real talent to manage and oversee a process, especially on Capitol Hill,” said Bill Daley, who was Obama’s chief of staff in 2011. “He’s well-liked in the White House and on the Hill. The comfort level is already there, so there’s no learning curve.”
Some Democratic strategists have urged their partisan allies to go on offense about Obamacare’s positive effects instead of just defending it against Republican attacks.
A Dec. 3-8 poll of 86 competitive House districts shows a majority of Americans want to fix or retain the law rather than repeal it, as Republicans have demanded. Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who conducted the survey for Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund and Democracy Corps, said Democrats shouldn’t run from Obamacare next year.
“One of the bigger problems in the rollout is that the president has not made a big enough argument for what he’s doing,” Greenberg said. “I think there’s going to be a positive story to tell by the elections.”
House Democrats are beginning to test that theory. Online ads released yesterday by their campaign arm in 44 competitive districts say that repealing Obamacare would be too costly.
Called “Faces of Repeal,” the minute-long web ad includes testimonials from people benefiting from the law. “I take insulin and 12 other medications, and my daughter’s medicine costs $700. We couldn’t afford it without health-care reform,” Diane of Denver says in the ad.
Schiliro is just the person to help expand those messages, Waxman said in an interview.
“He can reassure people why this law still makes sense,” Waxman said. “It’s unfortunate the rollout wasn’t handled well, but more and more, we’re going to hear the positive stories.” Schiliro, he said, can help with that because “he has a real sense of communications.”
Former Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, got to know Schiliro through the Oversight committee.
“He knows the Hill very well,” Davis said. “The administration is going to need that to hold their members in line. And with Republicans, he knows what’s doable and what’s not. He knows their pressure points.”
© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.