Two Democratic senators from states that lean Republican are rallying support for proposals to delay penalties or let people keep existing health plans after flaws hobbled the federal online exchanges.
Senate Democratic leaders aren't saying whether they will allow votes on the proposals by Mary Landrieu of Louisiana on existing policies or Joe Manchin of West Virginia to delay fines for a year. The efforts underscore Democrats' anxiety over the failures of the online exchanges
"We’ll have to see: There are hundreds of bills introduced every week, and we have to sort through those that have the opportunity to be voted on," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday when asked whether he'd allow a vote on Landrieu’s bill.
Since opening Oct. 1, the HealthCare.gov website serving 36 states has been plagued by delays, error messages, and hang-ups that prevented customers from completing applications. The flaws unleashed a round of criticism from Republican opponents.
Manchin, who represents a state where four in 10 primary voters last year backed a convicted felon over President Barack Obama, will meet tomorrow with senators he's trying to persuade to back a proposal to delay the penalty for individuals who fail to sign up by March 31.
The penalty — $95 or 1 percent of a person's annual income, whichever is greater — is a core provision of the law that the White House has resisted changing.
"We're still talking to our different colleagues on both sides," Manchin said Tuesday in an interview at the Capitol, adding, "I’d like for it to be as bipartisan as possible."
Manchin plans to introduce the bill by week’s end, his spokesman Jonathan Kott said in an email.
Manchin said his concern about delays in the enrollment process "hasn’t changed" since he started working several weeks ago with Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson to craft the proposal.
"The product's poor, and you've got to have the thing fixed," Manchin said. Party leaders haven't said whether the plan would get a vote, he said.
Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term in 2014 in a state Obama lost last year by 17 percentage points, yesterday introduced legislation requiring that individuals be allowed to keep their current health plans as long as they stay up-to-date on payments.
Republicans have seized on reports that hundreds of thousands of Americans got notices that their existing plans had been canceled because of the law, contradicting Obama's pledge that people who liked their coverage could keep it.
"A promise was made, and this legislation will ensure that this promise is kept," Landrieu said. "People should be able to keep their plans if they want to."
Landrieu was among the 10 Democratic senators who signed a letter to the administration, later endorsed by an 11th senator, seeking an extension of the insurance exchange's open enrollment period beyond the March 31 deadline.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who will testify Wednesday before the Senate Finance Committee, and Obama have pledged that the website will be repaired and Americans will have enough time to enroll.
New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat seeking re-election next year, drafted the letter and said Tuesday that her concerns are unabated.
"I want to make sure that people in New Hampshire and across the country, my constituents that need healthcare, are going to be able to get it," Shaheen said.
Shaheen, who was among the Democrats who questioned White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other officials about the website at a Capitol lunch Oct. 31, said she is "reviewing several pieces of proposed legislation" but hasn't signed on to any so far.
Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who also was at the meeting, told a Senate panel Tuesday that signup delays are easing and the exchange can register 17,000 customers per hour "with almost no errors."
Alaska Democrat Mark Begich, who is seeking a second term next year in a state Obama twice lost by double digits, said he's noticed improvement in the application process.
"They've definitely gotten better the last few days — the last week, I'd say — which is good," Begich said. "But there's still more improvements that they have to do, and making it more accessible for everyday people to get access to."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces a primary challenger backed by the tea party, on Tuesday took note of Democrats' complaints about the exchanges.
"What'll be really interesting to see in the Senate is the number of Democrats in very red states who are up in '14, and what they start demanding of the majority leader and the administration, in terms of adjustments to this law," McConnell said.
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a super PAC that's backing McConnell's re-election, is beginning an ad this week that invokes Obama's pledge that Americans could keep their healthcare plans if they liked them, and calls Democrat Alison Grimes — McConnell's general-election opponent if he survives the primary — an "Obama supporter."
"When liberals don't tell the truth, Kentucky gets burned," the ad says.
Reid disputed the notion that enrollment problems would adversely affect Senate Democrats in elections next year.
"Sen. McConnell, if he were wise, what he would start worrying about is his Republican senators and not worry about my Democratic senators," Reid said.
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