By JONATHAN ALLEN and JENNIFER HABERKORN
October 21, 2013
It’s not the GOP that President Barack Obama has to worry about in defending his botched health care rollout, it’s fellow Democrats.
They voted for the law, sang its praises for three-plus years and still believe in the promise of health care reform. But now they face a conundrum: stay in lock step with Obama and risk their credibility as advocates for the law’s benefits or publicly criticize the administration for its recent problems — especially a failure to more quickly acknowledge, and rectify, the major malfunction of its Internet marketplace.
It’s a particularly vexing question for Democrats worried about their party’s chances in the 2014 midterm elections, and, increasingly, they’re opting for the latter strategy.
(Obamacare guide: POLITICO's guide to the ACA)
“What has happened is unacceptable in terms of the glitches,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said on ABC’s “This Week.” “They were overwhelmed to begin with. There is much that needs to be done to correct the situation.” It was the second time in a week that Pelosi had gone public with her dismay over the implementation of a law that she carried to enactment by winning tough votes on the House floor in 2009 and ’10.
With the shutdown and debt limit fight over, there is already more attention on the failure to get the website running smoothly. This week will offer a critical test for the Democratic unity seen this month on the fiscal issues. Republicans have already pivoted from their failure to defund Obamacare to calling for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign. They are also criticizing her for refusing to appear at a House Energy and Commerce
Committee hearing Thursday.
(Also on POLITICO: Tech 'surge' to tackle Obamacare websites)
The White House is scrambling to show that it is addressing the concerns. Obama will discuss the rollout Monday morning in the Rose Garden, and “directly address the technical problems with HealthCare.gov,” a White House official said. And HHS announced Sunday that it is calling on the “best and brightest” tech experts it can find to help repair the flawed website.
The site has received nearly 20 million visits since it opened Oct. 1, and nearly 500,000 people have created applications in the federal and state exchanges, the administration says — although officials won’t say how many people have actually completed the process of buying a plan, or break down how many people tried to enroll through state-run exchanges versus the federal website.
“I can guarantee you that the efforts around the clock that have been under way since the launch of HealthCare.gov will continue, at the president’s insistence and direction,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week, later adding that there’s more to Obamacare than one Internet portal. “It’s important to remember the website alone is not the Affordable Care Act.”
White House officials declined requests for interviews and did not reply to emailed questions for this story.
While the administration is urging patience, Democrats who will face voters in a little over a year don’t have the luxury of time. They’re having to make decisions now about how to position themselves if the administration continues to struggle with implementing the central piece of a law they supported.
Democratic political strategists are racing to find the safest ground for 2014 House and Senate candidates who support the law but don’t want to be dragged down if things don’t get better — and fast. “Democrats running in 2014 need to be for fixing health care and need to run hard against those that want to repeal and defund it. They shouldn’t own responsibility for problems with the law or its implementation,” said one Democratic Party operative.
In another potentially troubling sign for the White House, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said on “Fox News Sunday” that Sebelius will, at some point, have to testify on the Hill.
Several Democrats told POLITICO they aren’t getting good answers either, even in private.
The early signs suggest a rocky path for the White House in holding off Democratic criticism.
Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, a senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, looks at this week’s hearing as an opportunity to find out more about the administration’s plans, according to her spokeswoman.
“My boss is concerned and is looking forward to hearing what the administration has to say,” Juliet Johnson said.
Pelosi said last week that she wants to see a successful enrollment demonstration “soon.”
“I hope that we would have some answers soon and that the answer would be: ‘OK, we’ve found the glitch or whatever it is, it’s been corrected and here’s a demonstration of how people, when they approach it now, will be received,’” she said.
Worst of all for some Democrats, they warned the White House about implementation problems.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) famously roiled fellow Democrats in April by saying that Obamacare, a law he helped write, could be a “train wreck” if not implemented properly.
Now, the 21-day-old effort to enroll Americans in the law is struggling under a website so loaded with bugs that it can’t enroll the masses or get the proper information to insurance companies.
Baucus now says he believes the latest troubles aren’t that serious.
“Any major undertaking will have a few glitches. They’re working them out. In the end, it’s going to work fine,” Baucus told POLITICO last week. “I have a lot of confidence — because of the people I’ve been talking with inside government and outside government, both public and private sector.”
But Baucus won’t be on the ballot in 2014, having already announced that he plans to retire at the end of this Congress. Indeed, the Democrats most sanguine about the future of enrollment in the exchanges are those who don’t have a stake in the midterms.
“I firmly believe these technical glitches will get worked out so people can more easily sign up for health insurance,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who is also retiring. “Transforming an entire health care system, especially one as enormous and fractious as ours, doesn’t happen overnight.”
Many Democrats feel as though they dodged a political bullet that the GOP inadvertently lodged in its own foot by forcing a government shutdown and threatening to plunge the nation into default rather than focusing on the difficulty the administration was having with the new exchanges.
“It’s fair to say that this town has been absolutely occupied with reopening the government and avoiding default,” New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said. “Now we can … roll into the rollout.”
House Democratic aides say the administration’s troubles might have been worse if not for the unifying effect of the shutdown and debt limit fight.
“If the last three weeks hadn’t happened, you might have gotten more members pointing a finger and raising questions,” said one Democratic aide.