Tensions escalate between Democrats, White House
By: Jonathan Allen and Seung Min Kim and Jennifer Haberkorn
November 13, 2013 10:06 AM EST
Democrats are on the verge of abandoning President Barack Obama on vital elements of his signature health care law at a time when his poll numbers have been sliding with three years left to go in his second term.
House Democrats used a closed-door meeting Wednesday to hammer the White House’s handling of the Obamacare rollout and aftermath. And Senate Democratic leaders have given their assent for the party’s most vulnerable lawmakers to sign onto efforts to adjust the health care law.
At Wednesday’s raucous caucus meeting, Democrats blasted the White House for failing to come up with a way to ensure that President Barack Obama’s if-you-like-it-you-can-keep-it promise about health insurance plans will be fulfilled. And they’re unconvinced the White House will meet its self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline to fix the HealthCare.gov website.
“They’re telling us all about actuarial tables and all about how the process would work and all of this is fine and great and it would be great in a classroom and you would get an A on your test, but this isn’t about getting an A on your test, this is about ads,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis liberal.
Behind the posturing is a real fear amongst Democrats that the GOP will be able to expand the political map in 2014, putting once-safe seats into play. The anger directed at David Simas, the deputy senior adviser to the president, and Mike Hash, the director of the Office of Health Reform at the Department of Health and Human Services, came from Democrats in swing districts as well as from veteran allies of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who hail from traditionally safe areas such as Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley.
The meeting came one day after former President Bill Clinton said that Obama would have to find a way to keep the promise to let folks keep their insurance policies. Democratic aides said Wednesday that his remarks provided air cover for lawmakers to increase pressure on the White House to come up with a fix.
Collectively, the House Democrats issued a stern warning to the administration officials: Fix it or face a full-scale rebellion.
White House aides contend that there’s little to worry about. For all the clamor, they argue, Democrats on Capitol Hill haven’t yet joined “repeal and replace” Republicans in trying to dismantle the law. The White House understands the frustration, they say, but notes that Democrats are invested in making the law work and aren’t walking away from it.
The president looks at this as “a matter of policy first and politics second,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday of Democratic concerns about 2014.
Whether that holds true if the website isn’t working on December 1 — and if their constituents lose existing plans that they are satisfied with—remains to be seen. The administration officials assured House Democrats that the website would be running smoothly by the end of this month.
Rep. Mike Doyle of Pittsburgh, an influential member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee told the administration officials that he would vote for the GOP bill if they couldn’t come up with better reasons for him to back the president, portending a dam-breaking vote on Friday if the White House can’t find a way to repair the damage it has suffered within the Democratic Caucus. He further suggested that if the White House can’t get the website fixed in time, the president will irreversibly lose the public’s trust on Obamacare, according to a source who was present.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), like Doyle a member of Pelosi’s inner circle, complained about White House efforts to portray insurance cancellation notices as affecting just a small percentage of the population.
“You say it’s only 5 percent,” Eshoo told Simas and Hatch, “but it is much more than 5 percent in my district.”
In the Senate, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, who is in a tough re-election race, has drafted a bill that would allow Americans to keep insurance policies that are scheduled for cancellation. Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who are also battling to keep their seats in 2014, signed on, as did Sen. Joe Manchin, from West Virginia, who is not up for re-election next year.
In a blow to the White House, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) this week became the first senator from a heavily Democratic state to join them.
Simas and Hatch faced a firing line in the Capitol Wednesday.
“It’s ugly,” said one Democratic source in the meeting. “There’s no way Obama and Pelosi will let their legacy go down in flames. I just wouldn’t want to be from a swing district right now. Or anything that closely resembles one.”
It has been a stunning turnaround for a party that won a showdown over a government shutdown and threatened default on the nation’s debt just a few weeks ago by standing solidly behind Obama when he refused to negotiate change in the health law to re-open the government and avoid hitting the debt ceiling.
“The caucus is very, very upset about the fact that the process hasn’t worked, and Republicans have this bill,” Cohen said.
If they stand with the White House on Friday’s vote, they face the worst of all possible worlds: Campaign ads pointing out that they not only backed Obama’s broken promise but also opposed legislation to fix it. The White House has two days, they warned, to come up with an alternative way to ensure Americans aren’t thrown off their health plans. The president has vowed to find an administrative fix—rather than a legislative one—but that has proved difficult so far.
“They were being urged [to come up with] something that would allow Democrats to express their desire to have standard plans, affordable plans, competitive plans,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio).
The White House argues that the bill from Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton could lead to insurance companies offering 2013 plans in 2014 not just to people who currently have them but to new consumers. Those policies wouldn’t have to abide by new quality standards imposed by the Affordable Care Act, including the provision that prohibits insurers from denying coverage to applicants because of pre-existing medical conditions.
On whether the White House has an alternative to Upton, Carney said, “the president does want to and is discussing with lawmakers the ways we can make improvements.” Expect “an announcement from him sooner rather than later” on how to provide for those who are hurt by cancellations.
Simas and Hatch also contended that the Upton bill would undermine the benefits of the law.
“The message was talking about what’s really in this Upton bill, which is to go back to the old insurance [system]—another way to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). In an earlier interview, Schakowsky expressed frustration with the White House handling of the Website problems, asking why, if an A team had been brought in to fix the site, the A team hadn’t been hired to build it in the first place.
The administration officials also urged no votes from House Democrats because, they said, the Upton bill would allow insurers to keep healthy people on the old plans, denying the exchanges the very demographic whose participation in the exchanges is crucial to balancing out the costs of covering sick Americans.
Insurance industry sources say that it’s likely too late to undo the cancellation notices that already have gone out, meaning the Upton bill is unlikely to actually restore coverage.