WASHINGTON -- Top White House officials counseled Democratic senators Thursday on coping with disruptions at public events on health care this summer, officials said, and promised the party and allies would respond with twice the force if any individual lawmaker is criticized in television advertising.
These officials also told skittish senators that fresh polling suggests an emphasis on issues such as barring insurers from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions is a political winner, able to increase support among independents, women, seniors and rural voters.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss details of the closed-door session that took place hours before lawmakers headed to their home states for a monthlong vacation.
In the week since the House began its own break, several town hall-style meetings have been disrupted by noisy demonstrators. These episodes have drawn widespread media attention, and Republicans have seized on them as well as polls showing a decline in support for President Barack Obama and his agenda as evidence that public support is lacking for his signature legislation.
Pushing back, Democrats have accused Republicans of sanctioning mob tactics, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused protesters of trying to sabotage the democratic process.
The Republican Party says it's not behind the protests, but Reid scoffed at the notion that the protesters reflect grass-roots sentiment. He held up a piece of artificial turf during a session with reporters.
"These are nothing more than destructive efforts to interrupt a debate that we should have, and are having," Reid said Thursday. "They are doing this because they don't have any better ideas.
They have no interest in letting the negotiators, even though few in number, negotiate. It's really simple: they're taking their cues from talk show hosts, Internet rumor-mongerers ... and insurance rackets."
Republicans answered back.
"All the polls show there is serious concern, if not outright opposition, to the president's health care plan," said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio. "Democrats are ginning up this cynical shell game."
Also Thursday, the AFL-CIO announced plans to mobilize labor activists to attend town hall meetings in 50 congressional districts this month to counter the conservative protesters.
White House aides David Axelrod and Jim Messina traveled to the Capitol for their presentation to Democratic senators. Senators saw videos of disruptions at events held by House members, and were told to organize their events more carefully as well as work with labor unions and other friendly groups to generate enthusiasm.
They also were urged to use these events to stress insurance reforms such as a limit on out-of-pocket expenses for those covered by insurance, a ban on coverage cancellation for the seriously ill and protections for small businesses.
Messina, the deputy White House chief of staff, also said any advertising attack would be met with a bigger response, these officials said.
"If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard," Messina told senators, according to two people in the room.
"It's a challenge, no question about it, and you've got to get out there and make the case," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said afterward. "This is not the time for the faint-hearted."
White House aides distributed briefing materials explaining to senators the points Obama is stressing, as well as how to answer commonly asked questions.
Some of the activists who've shown up at town-hall meetings held recently by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and other lawmakers are affiliated with loosely connected right-leaning groups, including Conservatives for Patients' Rights and Americans for Prosperity, according to officials at those groups. Some of the activists say they came together during the "Tea Party" anti-big-government protests that happened earlier this year, and they've formed small groups and stayed in touch over e-mail, Facebook and in other ways.
But they insist they're part of a ground-level movement that represents real frustration with government spending and growth.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was greeted by about 200 demonstrators at an event in Denver, about half supporting the Democrats, and half opposed.
About 20 protesters gathered in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Thursday to let Democratic Rep. Scott Murphy know they oppose the health care plans in Washington. They carried signs saying: "Obamacare Seniors beware! Rationing is here," and "If socialized medicine is best ... why didn't Ted Kennedy go to Canada?" Motorists honked as they drove by.
So far, three House committees have approved health care legislation, and a measure is expected on the floor this fall. One committee has acted, and a bipartisan group of senators on the Finance Committee has been at work for weeks trying to draft a compromise plan.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the group, said they were discussing exempting insurance policies sold to teachers and first-responders such as police and firefighters from a proposed tax on high-cost insurance.
Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Thursday the group, which will keep working over the August break, is making progress.
The outlines of a the Finance Committee compromise have emerged in recent weeks -- although nothing is final. The package would cost around $900 billion over 10 years and would be fully paid for through a variety of revenue raisers including a tax on health insurers that offer high-cost plans worth more than $20,000 a year.
Individuals would be required to get insurance, either through an employer, on their own, or through a government program. Federal subsidies would help low-income and many middle-class households afford the premiums. Medicaid would be expanded to cover more people close to the poverty line. Nearly all Americans would be covered.
But even the usually optimistic Baucus says it's not a done deal.
"If Republicans aren't there, it could get to the point where some time after the recess ... Democrats may have to go in a different direction," Baucus said after the group returned from a meeting with Obama at the White House.
"I hope not," Baucus added, "but we have to face facts."