The White House is receiving mixed reactions from allies in Washington as it tries to soothe growing unease among Democrats on Capitol Hill about the implementation of the health reform law so many of them risked their careers to pass.
Many Democrats remained publicly skittish even after President Barack Obama announced a fix to the Affordable Care Act intended to honor his commitment that consumers can keep their health plans if they so desire, even if those plans are considered subpar by new standards contained in the law.
Despite accepting the blame for the bumpy rollout during a contrite Thursday press conference, Obama hasn’t been able to fully persuade vulnerable Democratic lawmakers up for re-election in 2014 out of seeking legislative changes to his signature health care law – or worse, joining Republican efforts to undo one of the law’s key components.
And as the administration scrambles to repair the Healthcare.gov website and develop a patch to the law meant to make good on Obama’s previous vow, the president might soon have to reckon with a Democratic caucus in Congress more emboldened to cut him loose to preserve their own political futures.
“There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they're running or not,” Obama said Thursday, adding that he felt “deeply responsible for making it harder for them” to defend the Affordable Care Act.
But the president’s proposed fix didn’t appear to fully satisfy Democrats, particularly those who are expected to face tough re-election challenges just a year from now.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the architect of legislation to allow consumers to continue enrolling in existing plans, said that the president’s announcement was a “good first step,” though she conceded Congress “will probably need legislation to make it stick.”
And she hinted that it may not stop there. "Not only does this have to be fixed, there are probably a few other things,” she told NBC News. “There may be some other fixes.”
Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat up for re-election next year, similarly lauded the president’s proposal, but said “a one-year fix is not enough, and we need to do more.”
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. -- the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, charged with electing Democrats to the Senate in 2014 -- said the administration's changes might not go far enough in helping politically vulnerable Democrats.
"I don't know," Bennet said when asked if the Senate would need to do more and take a vote that could give members more political cover. "I think we're going to have to continue to monitor the implementation on a day by day basis and make sure that the web site is worthy of the American people."
The recent woes for Obama and his Democratic allies are essentially the byproduct of an unforced error; the president called it a “fumble” during his remarks at the White House.
Just a month ago, Democratic unity had helped dispense with Republican-led efforts to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, their demands contributing to a government shutdown and threat of default on the national debt that badly damaged the GOP in the polls.
But the persistent difficulties with Healthcare.gov, anemic enrollment numbers during the first month for the insurance exchanges and a spate of canceled policies – in apparent contradiction to Obama’s vow to allow people to keep their plans – have only compounded the political difficulties now facing the administration. Just a month after the shutdown, Republicans are playing offense, and Democrats are on defense.
In a bid to calm nerves, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough was dispatched to Capitol Hill to huddle with Senate Democrats, and then House Democrats. But it’s unclear whether this offensive, in tandem with Obama’s earlier remarks, had done enough to calm the administration’s supporters.
A key moment for the president will come on Friday, when the House votes on a Republican plan authored by Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, which would allow insurers to continue offering their 2013 plans into the next calendar year. If Democrats break ranks with the administration to support the legislation, it would be a rebuke to Obama and a warning sign that his sway over his party is fading.
There were flashes of internal Democratic discord earlier this fall, when Obama had initially sought approval from Congress for military intervention in Syria. Progressives balked at approving their own president’s request, forcing Obama to instead seek out a diplomatic agreement with Russia rather than risk losing a politically embarrassing vote.
NBC’s Kasie Hunt, Kelly O’Donnell and Frank Thorp contributed.
First published November 14 2013, 2:58 PM