By Amie Parnes - 12/05/13 06:00 AM EST
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough held an unpublicized meeting with Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), chairman of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, amid anger and anxiety that ObamaCare’s botched rollout could cost the party its majority next year.
In the meeting, requested by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), McDonough and Bennet discussed what the White House could do to help vulnerable Senate Democrats and “talked about developing a stronger relationship with the White House,” according to one senior Democratic aide familiar with the conversation.
Democratic senators fear the White House is not sympathetic enough to their plight. After the government shutdown, they were confident they would retain the Senate, but optimism vanished as problems with the healthcare law mounted.
“I know these guys are nervous as hell,” said a second senior Democratic aide. “I mean, all of their jobs are on the line because this is the thing making the biggest waves lately. It’s a nightmare.”
The aide said the meeting, which took place late last month in Bennet’s Senate office, was aimed at making sure the White House communicated more with the committee.
Asked if it would have been better if the White House had reached out to the DSCC rather than the other way around, the aide familiar with the meeting expressed satisfaction with the way things played out.
A third aide said of the White House: “They get it.”
The discussion, which was not limited to healthcare, had produced results, the first senior aide said.
The White House has “increased communication” and been in regular contact with senators with both data related to the healthcare law, and in coordinating messaging.
“Within 24 hours, there was a good response,” the aide said.
The meeting, which was also attended by Bennet’s chief of staff Jonathan Davidson and DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil, is part of a larger effort by McDonough to reach out to Senate Democrats.
He has made frequent treks to Capitol Hill and attended two recent Senate Democratic caucus meetings. He has also met with some senators privately to discuss their concerns.
Anger among Democrats over the rollout of ObamaCare is deep.
The third aide, who works for a senator up for reelection in 2014, said the White House had “s--t the bed.”
Now, the staffer said, the president’s sinking approval ratings are an additional problem.
“Everyone recognizes that our electoral process is tied to the president’s standings,” the aide said. “I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to get the site working again.”
During one recent caucus meeting, a few senators grumbled while McDonough sought to ease their discomfort. And one senator stood up and asked for a political point of contact at the White House.
“No one really knows who to turn to over there anymore,” one Senate staffer explained. “No one knows who handles what. I think that’s part of the problem.”
Those concerns and others have caused McDonough to take an inventory of sorts at the White House to determine why Obama was caught blindsided by the healthcare website snafu. One source close to the White House labeled it “a review.” But White House aides deny that a formal review has been or is being done by McDonough.
Some former administration officials argue the West Wing has suffered since the departure of former Obama political adviser David Plouffe, leaving senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, along with McDonough, overloaded.
“They’re probably waking up to the fact that they should do more than just rely on Denis, Rob and Dan,” one former official said.
Overall, the White House and Democrats are more confident this week about the healthcare law, given improvements to HealthCare.gov. White House officials said that approximately 1 million people visited the site Monday.
White House aides have maintained that as soon the website is properly functioning, users will be able to see all the benefits of ObamaCare.
“The policy will take care of the politics,” senior officials have said repeatedly.
The confidence has led the administration to switch from defense to offense on healthcare, with Obama launching a three-week campaign designed to rally support and boost enrollment in the healthcare exchanges.
The new messaging tack has eased some of the concerns senators had in recent days, according to the aide familiar with the recent McDonough-DSCC meeting.
The website, with less glitches, “has dialed down rhetoric on all sides,” the aide familiar with the meeting said.
“I would describe it as cautious optimism,” the aide said, when asked about how senators are feeling these days. But, the aide added, “There are still other things that need to be addressed.”