President Barack Obama’s one-year reprieve for Americans losing health insurance achieved at least one political aim: to slow a Democratic rush toward a Republican bill to curtail Obamacare coming to a vote today in the House.
Obama’s hour-long display of contrition yesterday over his health-care law, though, fell short of quelling the longer-term political crisis engulfing the president and his party over the botched rollout of the increasingly unpopular program.
Democrats running for re-election in 2014, particularly those in the Senate, are continuing to push for revamping the law. A Senate vote isn’t imminent, aides said.
Obama’s fix “doesn’t go as far as I’d like,” because it would only last one year, said Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat seeking a second term. The public was told “you could choose between the individual plan you have and the plans that were on the exchange” without any time limits, he said.
The more immediate pressure on Obama came from House Democrats who will vote today on a measure from Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan that would let Americans keep through the end of 2014 insurance plans that don’t meet the health law’s requirements. By proposing a similar move administratively, the president limited what could have been an embarrassing series of defections by Democrats.
Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee said at most 20 to 25 of his colleagues would vote for the Republican plan, now that Democrats think the administration has taken action and “turned a corner” by accepting responsibility.
There will be “a substantial reduction” in the number of Democrats backing the bill because of Obama’s move, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland said in an interview.
Republicans dismissed the president’s move as designed to insulate his party rather than help hundreds of thousands of Americans who have received cancellation notices from insurers.
“Dressing up the same failed policy and pushing it past the 2014 elections is cynical politics at its worst,” Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said in a statement. Obama was trying to fix a “broken promise by making more empty promises,” and “hoping to shift the blame to states and insurance companies.”
Either way, Obama headed off some political pain for now. The larger problems with Obamacare’s rollout -- including technical difficulties with the federal website where consumers can select health coverage under the law -- haven’t gone away, and Obama will meet today with chief executive officers of health insurance providers to discuss the exchanges and other issues with the law, according to an administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the meeting in advance of a formal announcement.
In their 2014 campaigns, Democrats are bracing for attacks from Republicans that they perpetuated a false pledge to voters about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Obama attempted to deflect such accusations at a White House news conference yesterday, saying lawmakers who promised people that could keep their insurance plans “were making representations based on what I told them and what this White House” indicated. “It’s not on them -- it’s on us,” he said.
At the same time, Obama said he’s aware that the law’s debut has already hurt Democrats.
“There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats,” he said. “I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them.”
Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat facing re-election in a state Obama lost by 14 percentage points in 2012, said he prefers legislation he has co-sponsored that would extend current plans for two years.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose state Obama lost by 17 percentage points last year, signaled she will continue with her measure that would ensure people could keep health insurance plans they liked.
Obama’s action “was a great first step, and we will probably need legislation to make it stick,” Landrieu said. “We made a promise and we didn’t keep it.”
Votes on a bill aren’t imminent in the Democratic- controlled Senate. A top Senate Democratic aide said scheduling them now would only guarantee continued public attention to the problems with the health law and intraparty feuding over whether and how to fix them. Lawmakers will have time during the Thanksgiving break starting Nov. 25 to gauge their constituents’ reactions to Obama’s solution, said the aide, who wasn’t authorized to discuss strategy and asked not to be identified.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio called the president’s move “little more than a political response designed to shift blame rather than solve the problem,” while Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said full repeal was the only alternative to give Americans certainty.
Obama’s message yesterday was that repealing the law was out of the question. He said one “pledge I haven’t broken” is to keep working to improve Americans’ lives, and on health care, that means “we can’t go back to the status quo.”
Three times during his 64-minute news conference, Obama said the health-care measure’s failures are “on me.”
The repentant tone comes as the president’s reputation is suffering. A Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters conducted Nov. 6-11 found his job approval rating at 39 percent, the lowest level of his presidency, and a majority for the first time saying Obama is not honest and trustworthy amid growing discontent with the health-care law.
The survey also showed that congressional Democrats have lost a nine-percentage-point lead they enjoyed among voters at the start of last month’s partial government shutdown; respondents are now evenly split on whether they would vote for a Republican or a Democrat for Congress.
While Obama may have relieved some of the immediate political pressure on Democrats with yesterday’s announcement, he has to do more to repair the damage, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
“He mitigated some of it, he needs to keep on it and mitigate it more,” said Lake, the president of Washington-based Lake Research Partners. “What I heard the president say is, ‘I’m going to be part of fixing it,’ but what I also heard Democrats say is they’re not going to wait for the president -- they’re going to go ahead and fix it themselves.”
Lake said Democrats, who still enjoy greater credibility on health-care issues than Republicans according to public polls, need to exploit that advantage by being more aggressive than they have been to date in making their case on the law.
“I don’t know why we’re not taking a tougher stand with the insurance companies -- you’re not going after Mother Theresa, you’re going after Darth Vader,” Lake said. “We should say, ‘They sold people policies that they knew they were going to have to discontinue, this is wrong, and we’re not going to let it stand.’”
Oregon’s Merkley followed that approach, telling reporters that insurers must “honor their side of the bargain.”
“It requires not only the government side, but it requires insurance companies to keep offering the polices and not cancel them on folks,” he said yesterday. “I’ll be certainly calling on insurance companies in Oregon to continue to extend the individual plans that citizens currently have.”
Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive officer of America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, warned that Obama’s move “could destabilize the market and result in higher premiums for consumers.”
Premiums already have been set for next year based on expectations about when consumers would be buying through the marketplaces set up under the law, Ignagni said in an e-mailed statement.
Democrats said Obama’s decision was favorable in light of the political challenges they’re facing.
“It’s a good move in the right direction,” said Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The change emboldened Republicans to use the health-care measure against Democratic candidates. The National Republican Congressional Committee issued news releases calling House Democrats co-conspirators who gave Obama a “blank check” to enact the law and saying they should “answer for the higher premiums and canceled plans” their constituents are facing.
Some Democrats declared themselves unbowed.
“I’m eager, anxious and proud to run on this in 2014,” Mo Elleithee, communications director at the Democratic National Committee, said in a memo. He said Republicans want to kill the measure “because they know once people begin to enjoy the benefits that come with a better and more affordable health-care system, they won’t want to give them up.”
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