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Obama Meets With Democrats On Capitol Hill In Health Care Showdown


With Republicans in Congress eager to dismantle President Obama's signature health care law, there were dueling motorcades and security entourages at the Capitol today. One belonged to President Obama, the other to Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Both men came to prepare their parties for the looming showdown over Obamacare, as NPR's Scott Detrow reports.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: As Republicans campaigned to take back Washington, there was one promise they kept making to voters over and over. Today, Vice President-elect Mike Pence came to the Capitol to make it clear they want to stick to it.


MIKE PENCE: The first order of business is to repeal and replace Obamacare.

DETROW: That's why with just about two weeks to go in his term, Obama also motorcaded up to Capitol Hill. He was there to talk strategy with Democrats.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...Repeal Obamacare without being...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, guests. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What's your advice for Democrats on how to fight...

OBAMA: Look out for the American people.

DETROW: How the party can slow the Republican push to undo Obamacare - they don't have the votes, but they can sway public opinion. After Democrats emerged from the meeting, many kept focusing on one idea - chaos.


CHUCK SCHUMER: Republicans would create chaos in the health care system...

DETROW: Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer was standing next to a big sign with his new slogan for this fight - make America sick again.


SCHUMER: ...Because they're stuck between a rock and a hard place. They have no idea what to put in place of the Affordable Care Act.

DETROW: Republicans have already introduced a measure that begins the long process of repealing large parts of Obamacare. So Schumer and other Democrats are going to warn over and over that a repeal without a replacement could upend the entire insurance market and leave many people without insurance at all. House Speaker Paul Ryan insists everything's under control.


PAUL RYAN: We have a plan to replace it. We have plenty of ideas to replace it. And you'll see as the weeks and months unfold what we're talking about replacing it.

DETROW: But Republicans haven't agreed yet on what a replacement plan would look like or when it would emerge. What they can agree on and what they're eager to talk about are shortcomings in the current system. Obamacare has been a mess, they say. Its costs have skyrocketed, and it needs to go away as quickly as possible. But...


RYAN: We want to make sure that there's an orderly transition so that the rug is not pulled out from under the families who are currently struggling under Obamacare while we bring relief.

DETROW: Both sides know that whatever comes next is going to be pretty disruptive to a major chunk of the American economy. At the beginning of what's going to be a drawn-out, high-profile fight, they're circling around each other and trying to frame how voters are seeing the issue. That means trying to blame the other side for shortcomings in health care either in the current system or in what it could look like once it's dismantled.

President-elect Trump tweeted a warning to fellow Republicans in the morning, saying they need to make sure, as he put it, Dems are to blame for the mess. Pence backed him up on that point.


PENCE: I admonished members of the House Republican conference today. It's important that we remind the American people of what they already know about Obamacare - that the promises that were made were all broken.

DETROW: Schumer doesn't deny that Democrats currently own health care, as Trump put it. He concedes that ever since Obamacare passed in 2010, voters have blamed his party for every problem in the entire health care system. But Schumer says things will be different with Republicans in charge, especially after they start undoing all the work Obama and other Democrats spent the past eight years building up.


SCHUMER: Now they're going to own it. And all the problems in the health care system - and there have been many throughout the years; no one has solved all of them - are going to be on their back.

DETROW: Democrats say in their meeting today, President Obama told them to try and build their argument around personal cases, how health care affects individual voters' lives, especially the 20 million people who have gained health insurance since the law went into effect.

Democrats will try to do that over the next two weekends, holding events in their districts to try and build up support for what they've put in place over the last eight years. Schumer says the party's message is pretty simple.


SCHUMER: They're repealing. We're not.

DETROW: But after two midterm elections and a presidential race where they won ground by railing against the landmark law, Republicans are pretty confident in their argument here, too. Scott Detrow, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.

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