White House Point Man Mends Obamacare Politics

U.S. Northeast Digs Out From Winter Storm as Cold Bite Nears

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 roll-out 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 Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.). “It’s clear he has the ear of decision makers 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 Ave. The Senators, who had long complained 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.

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 Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Schiliro rose to be one of Obama’s “special advisors,” 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, 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 shakeup, that saw changes in the legislative affairs team and the officials overseeing the implementation of the healthcare law in an effort to salvage the second term.

In December, White House Deputy Communications Director and former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer Katie Beirne Fallon 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, said 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, sorting out 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”

Congressional aides point to other, more subtle, 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 reversed course and granted temporary exemptions to the ACA’s individual mandate in policy 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 Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-La.), that 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 non-crisis 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, GOP aides say they’ve seen an  improvement in the administration’s openness in recent weeks.