By Tom Curry, National Affairs Writer, NBC News
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate leadership, said Sunday that “the number one issue in the 2014 election is not going to be Obamacare or the deficit. It is going to be who can get the middle class going again, who can expand middle-class incomes, who can create jobs.”
Schumer’s comment on NBC’s Meet the Press was in the same vein as his argument last week that “job creation, (an increase in the) minimum wage, and unemployment insurance” will be the dominant issues for voters in 2014 elections.
Schumer is honing the Democrats’ message for 2014, when they face mid-term elections that look to be challenging due to the waning popularity of President Barack Obama, especially in states such as Arkansas and North Carolina where Democratic senators are up for re-election.
The New York Democrat contended last week that “the tectonic plates of our politics are changing, because the decline of middle-class incomes and the difficulty in average people getting good-paying jobs has overtaken the deficit as the number-one problem facing our political economy today.”
Schumer said that early in the New Year Senate Democrats will push an extension of an emergency unemployment benefits program that President George W. Bush signed into law in 2008. Schumer described that issue as a wedge that will divide Republicans in what he portrayed as “the fight between the hard right and the mainstream conservatives in the Republican Party.”
He noted that when Bush signed the benefits bill into law in the summer of 2008, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent, compared to 7 percent now.
But weighing on Democrats’ chances in the 2014 elections is the bungled debut of enrollment for the Affordable Care Act.
On Thursday the administration suddenly announced that it would exempt certain people from the mandate requiring them to buy health insurance. The exemption would go to people if their prior insurance coverage had been canceled and if they decided that insurance plans within Obamacare were unaffordable.
Schumer said Sunday that “what most Americans want us to do is not repeal Obamacare – which is what our Republican colleagues are focused on -- but fix it. The president is working to fix it; we are working in the Senate to fix it. We urge our Republican colleagues to join us in fixing it.”
But the Senate leadership hasn’t taken action on Obamacare revision bills such as one offered by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D- La., which would allow people to continue individual coverage unless their health insurance firm cancels all coverage in the individual market.
Last month, the Obama administration announced a policy change allowing Americans whose insurance companies have cancelled their coverage for 2014 to remain in their plans.
Schumer predicted that “six months from now many more people are going to see the positives rather than the negatives” in the Affordable Care Act.
In an interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Sen Joe Manchin, D- W.V., acknowledged Sunday that Obamacare was a liability for Democratic Senate candidates in 2014.
"It's weighing heavy on that," he said. "I'm very close to our Democrats who are up (for re-election) right now.…The Democrats right now are feeling the weight of it. And it needs to turn around….”
Manchin also said the ultimate fate of Obamacare is still in doubt. "If it's so much more expensive than what we anticipated and if the coverage is not as good as what we've had, you've got a complete meltdown at that time,” he said.
Manchin has called for a one-year suspension of the fines and penalties under the law which "gives you a chance to adjust the products to the market and to see if the market will absorb and buy."
Appearing on Meet the Press, Sen. Tom Coburn, R- Okla., said Republicans in 20104 "ought to talk about health care and what we’re for, rather than continuing to talk about what we’re against."
Coburn said, “Obamacare right now causes people to spend more money, have less choice, have a higher deductible, and have less freedom.”
The concept underlying Obamacare – the federal government “could manage appropriately one sixth of the economy” is, Coburn said, “proving itself erroneous” as the administration tries to implement the Affordable Care Act. “You can’t fix this mess,” the Oklahoma Republican said.
Coburn said the exemption from the individual mandate which the Obama administration announced Thursday in effect undercuts people who’ve already purchased insurance coverage. “Everybody who signed up that had a high-deductible policy should go and cancel today” and ask for an exemption, he said.
Coburn disputed the common news media notion that congressional Republicans and Democrats are in gridlock and unable to agree on important policies. “The reason we’re in trouble on deficits and debt is not because we didn’t agree, but because we did.”
Coburn contended that “We agreed to spend $740 billion we didn’t have last year… We agree to continue to let Medicare have $80 billion a year in fraud in it…. We agreed to all those things. The story coming out of Washington is that we don’t get along. I would dispute that. We get along just fine with the status quo of the government being ineffective and inefficient.”
Looking beyond the spending agreement which Congress passed, the next fiscal issue that Congress faces is the decision on whether to raise the government’s borrowing limit.
Coburn voiced a sense of resignation about the debt limit, saying, “The American people don’t believe we have a debt ceiling because we always increase it. And they don’t believe we have the discipline in Washington” to restrain the growth of the government’s debt burden.
First published December 22 2013, 7:06 AM