Democrats' united front cracks
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
October 25, 2013 05:00 AM EDT
The great Democratic unity of 2013 held for five-and-a-half days.
For weeks leading up to the shutdown — and over the 16 days it dragged on — President Barack Obama did the unthinkable: he held every Democrat in the House and Senate together. There weren’t any defectors. There wasn’t even anyone running to reporters to question his strategy. The man who’d disappointed them so many times was suddenly exciting them, with his newly apparent backbone and successful resistance to Republicans. They were rushing to do whatever they could to stand by him, next to him, with him.
Like any fad, that’s gone the way of trucker hats and the macarena.
The problems with the Obamacare website have transformed the president from a man who seemed to have gotten a sudden infusion of political capital to a man who’s been pushed back on his heels. He was firm, and he was setting the agenda. Now he’s back to trying to beating back the latest frame Republicans have forced on him, inadvertently providing evidence to support the doubts they’ve been trying to sow from the beginning. He spent last week against the backdrop of a shutdown that made people appreciate all the things government can do for them. Now he has a website which shows how little it can.
(PHOTOS: Obamacare online glitches: 25 great quotes)
And Democrats have scattered, raising the question of whether the president will be able to preserve any of the new cohesion he inspired earlier in the month, or whether the rift is going to widen again.
With every day, there was more impatience and dismay with the botched rollout of the website. Meanwhile, the White House spent much of the week dealing with a bizarre episode with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) over whether an unnamed Republican insulted the president, forced to support Speaker John Boehner’s denial over the insistent statement of one of its closest allies on the Hill.
Privately, certain Republicans express concern with the party’s decision to focus so much attention on a website that could very well be fixed over the next few months, instead of calling attention to other potentially problematic aspects of the law. And polls show support for Republicans remains way down, while support for Obamacare is still ticking up.
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But instead of spending the week beating up on Republican overreach, or promoting all the aspects of the law that don’t involve uninsured people spending hours trying to sign up, Democrats have had to confront undeniable problems that have even core liberals worried.
That’s led a growing number of people on the Hill to push the White House to change its current position that it can fix the problems with the website without changing the deadlines or time frame.
“I can’t honestly say that we’ve tried our hardest to fix things,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who chose Bill O’Reilly’s talk show as his venue to unveil a plan to delay the individual mandate penalty for a year. “You have to give me a reason I want to buy what you want to sell me. And until they get that in their minds, they’re going to have a lot of headwinds, if you will.”
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Manchin says he’s still hopeful the law can work, but that it’s going to take a lot more than what the administration’s done so far to convince him. So far, he said, he hasn’t heard back on the call he made to the White House to tell them about his announcement.
The good news, from the White House perspective, is that even Manchin — who’s always been suspicious of an individual mandate — has only gone this far. Whatever political fallout there’s been, White House officials argue, will be addressed as they overhaul the site, expressing confidence that most people outside of Washington are past looking at Obamacare as a political issue and want to see it preserved, if repaired. The Democratic trouble they’ve faced so far, say White House officials, stems from the same urgent concerns they have to see the website improved.
Typical of the long view that Obama always tends to take, White House aides say, he didn’t believe that last week’s shutdown victory would suddenly transform his relationship with Hill Democrats. Neither is he worried by this week’s rebellion. But they do note, with satisfaction, how relatively minor that rebellion has been to date, despite problems that the president himself has acknowledged are much worse than the glitches he first dismissed.
“No Democrats have joined Republicans in trying to defund or repeal Obamacare,” said a White House aide. “Rather, like the vast majority of Americans, Democrats in Congress want the Affordable Care Act to work and the website to function properly. That’s why we’re working around the clock to ensure the website is a viable mechanism for uninsured Americans to get access to quality, affordable health insurance.”
“Don’t mistake the desire of any Democrat in the House or the Senate to make sure that Obamacare is fully implemented and that everyone can get coverage from Obamacare’s new coverage for division,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman. “On the contrary, we’ve never been more unified. Following the shutdown, Democrats are in lockstep with the president in making sure we can get Obamacare implemented.”
In fact, White House aides were amazed at how long and how close red state Senate Democrats stuck together while Republicans squirmed. Even the party’s most conservative members all came to the White House, stood next to all their colleagues at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s press conferences. Halfway through the shutdown, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blasted Republicans for the havoc they’d caused by resisting the president, Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) stood right beside him, joining the complaints.
Praising the House Democrats for how they were holding, Obama joked at their meeting at the White House that they were a far way from the old Will Rogers line, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
Begich is now among the endangered Democrats who’ve moved quickly toward a less extensive change than the one Manchin’s proposed, signing on to a plan from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D- N.H.) to extend the open enrollment period if the website isn’t fixed soon. Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) also support that plan. All are up for reelection next year.
“I have repeatedly said this law is not perfect and have proposed changes to make it work for Alaska families and small businesses,” Begich said in a measured statement. “I want to work with the administration to ensure that individuals are not unfairly penalized if technical issues with the website continue.”
Wasserman Schultz said “there’s no daylight” between Democrats and the White House, if there ever was.
“There’s a difference between how Democrats might discuss and work together on issues, and at the end of the day, whether we are walking in lock step together and implementing the president’s agenda,” she said. “We’re unified, and we all ran on and support the president’s agenda.”
Manchin warned, though, that the White House better be ready to accept some of the Obamacare changes he and other Democrats are proposing.
“If they push back and say, ‘It’s our way or the highway,’” Manchin said, “I think they’ll get a little bit more of a pushback.”
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