2014 Dems plot Obamacare strategy
By: Manu Raju
January 29, 2014 05:03 AM EST
One of President Barack Obama’s rowdiest standing ovations Tuesday night came when he demanded Republicans drop their endless crusade to repeal his signature health care law.
But there’s a more critical bloc of lawmakers he needs to implement Obamacare: vulnerable Democratic senators facing reelection in 2014.
They include Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who are meeting behind the scenes to keep the pressure on the White House to respond quickly to voter frustration. At least a dozen Senate Democrats, mainly consisting of senators facing reelection, are weighing various legislative and administrative fixes to the law, a move that could reopen the furious debate over health care in the middle of a high-stakes election year.
(WATCH: Obama's health care remarks at State of the Union)
“Just because the bill is signed into law doesn’t mean it can’t get tweaked or improved over time,” said Landrieu, who is helping lead the informal discussions.
Democratic leaders, including Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, are also involved in the talks to minimize the potential for a nasty floor fight ahead of the election and to serve as a channel to the White House.
The future of Obamacare isn’t all that’s at stake in the talks. Democratic control of the Senate after the November elections — and Obama’s ability to shape legislation for the duration of his presidency — will depend in large part on how the party responds to the sweeping law’s shaky rollout out in the months ahead.
(WATCH: Key moments from the State of the Union)
With the Democratic grip on the Senate coming down to at least six seats, the White House is extremely sensitive to the concerns of in-cycle Democrats. The administration hopes to use the president’s authority to assuage voter anger over the law, as it did recently by exempting volunteer fire departments from health coverage mandates.
In addition to Landrieu, who faces a tough reelection this year, the effort is also being organized by Heidi Heitkamp, who won a bruising battle in North Dakota last cycle. And the discussions include a spate of Democrats facing potentially difficult races this year, including Begich, Pryor, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
While the private discussions consist of several senators who are not running for reelection — namely freshmen Democrats like Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Tim Kaine of Virginia, and the independent Angus King of Maine — at least nine senators facing voters in the fall are discussing whether to push legislation or pressure the White House to make administrative fixes they can then flag to voters back home.
“I’m not afraid of the issue because my opponents are going to use it no matter what,” said Begich, who faces a tough reelection battle for a second term in Alaska. “But I’m going to be the guy, and I’m going to continue to be the guy — as I have been since Day One — continuing to fix it.”
But there are serious political hangups: By putting forward legislation to make targeted modifications, the health care issue will be propelled back into the national spotlight just as many Democrats are trying to run away from the unpopular law and turn the focus back to economic issues. To get around that, some Democrats say the focus, for now, should be on finding a package of measures that the White House can quickly implement — and go around Congress — a tactic Obama vowed to do repeatedly during his State of the Union address, rather than risk a bitter floor fight in which the outcome is far from assured.
“We’ve reached a point here where the suggestion that a law passed four years ago might be modified to work better is considered politically dangerous,” an exasperated Durbin said. “There are things we can do to make the bill better, and we want to do it.”
Senators said the ideas on how to fix the law span the gamut: how to deal with small businesses that want to grow beyond 50 employees but are worried about providing health coverage; whether to extend the enrollment period for an additional two months beyond March; and whether to allow consumers to keep their cancelled plans for at least two more years; among other issues.
It’s unlikely a single catch-all plan will emerge, but individual senators and small coalitions of Democrats may begin pushing piecemeal proposals if the White House is unable to resolve the problems without the consent of Congress.
“For Oregon, the exchange is one of the least functional in the country so I wanted to make sure that people don’t get caught in the [insurance] gap,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.),who is also up for reelection and signed onto a bill from Landrieu ensuring insurance holders can keep their existing health plans.
“If we can address those administratively, great,” said Shaheen, who has sponsored legislation to extend the individual enrollment period past March and says she’s cognizant of calls from small businesses to raise the threshold for the employer mandate beyond 50 employees. “If they require bigger fixes, then that’s something we should do. Because as I’ve talked to people, their concern is not to repeal this law, it’s to fix what’s not working.”
Republicans see the Democratic chatter as a panicky response to shield themselves from the political backlash from the law. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said his caucus has more interest in tearing apart the law “brick by brick” than making it more politically palatable for Democrats.
A number of at-risk Democrats have met with Obama and Phil Schiliro, a senior White House aide working on resolving concerns over the implementation. Senate Democratic leadership, including Durbin and Chuck Schumer of New York, are keeping close tabs on the discussions in the event they lead to a groundswell within their caucus demanding Senate votes in the middle of a closely fought election.
To prevent a divisive floor fight, Durbin and Schumer are acting as liaisons to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Obama over the concerns of in-cycle Democrats. Reid won’t say what Obamacare measures, if any, he might allow to come for a vote this year, and Schumer has said he would consider legislative fixes but remains noncommittal.
“Senators are talking about ways of fixing Obamacare,” Reid said Tuesday. “I’m happy to continue my discussions with them.”
Durbin — who faces voters this year but is on safe political ground — was called by one source as the “adult in the room” as he tries to steer the conversation among the 2014 Democrats to specific changes the administration can make without resorting to politically damaging votes in Congress. In an interview, Durbin said there’s been no consensus yet on whether to seek a legislative package.
“Everyone wants it to work,” Abigail McDonough, a spokeswoman for Heitkamp, said of the law. “It isn’t perfect, but there’s good, and there are some pieces that should be strengthened.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who also is up for reelection, never had a chance to vote on the health care law before he was elected in a 2010 special election. He says the administration’s decision to exempt volunteer firefighters from the employer mandate helped alleviate concerns in his state — but says there’s much more that can be addressed, particularly on the legislative front.
“There are real concerns from members of the Democratic Caucus, who are hearing from our home states, real concerns about challenges with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, [and we need] to work with the administration and to craft to bills that will proactively address problems that we can foresee,” Coons said.
In his speech, Obama laid out the politically popular measures of the law, including its provisions ensuring people with preexisting conditions can’t be denied coverage, and he touted what he considered a success story in Kentucky’s implementation of the law.
“Now, I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of the law,” Obama said. “But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles.”
Pryor sat and applauded Obama’s comments chiding the GOP repeal attempts, as other vulnerable Democrats rose to their feet. In an interview, Pryor made clear that it makes sense to move a package of fixes to the floor that can attract GOP support.
“I hate to say it, but it’s a little bit of ‘put your money where your mouth is,’” Pryor said of Republicans. “You’re identifying all these things, let’s go ahead and try to fix them.”