Democrats aren’t running through the halls of Congress with their hair on fire yet, but anxiety over the possible blowback from the federal health care law is growing by the day.
Between the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov and the fact that millions of Americans are poised to lose their current health insurance coverage at the end of the year despite a promise from President Barack Obama that they would be able to keep their plans “no matter what,” congressional Democrats are scrambling to cover their hides before next year’s midterm elections.
A handful of Senate Democrats have leapt to support a proposal from Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who's facing a tough re-election campaign in 2014, that would allow Americans with already existing insurance plans to keep them even if they don’t meet the quality guidelines established by the Affordable Care Act.
House Democrats on Wednesday held a closed-door meeting with White House officials, where some members vented frustration with the administration over the law's handling and demanded a solution by the end of the week.
Republicans, not surprisingly, are working to leverage the Obamacare problems for political gain.
In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Landrieu suggested that she had been misled when she voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
"When we passed the Affordable Care Act, we did so with the intention that if you liked your health plan, you could keep it," she said. "A promise was made, and this legislation will ensure that this promise is kept."
It's hard to see how that would be the case, given that millions of Americans at the time who were insured on private plans held policies that did not meet the minimum requirements set by the law. (Many Republicans at the time warned that this would be a consequence.)
So far, Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Dianne Feinstein of California have co-sponsored Landrieu's proposal. Hagan, Merkley and Pryor are up for re-election next year while Feinstein and Manchin are not.
On Wednesday, another lawmaker facing re-election in 2014, Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, introduced his own legislation that would allow Americans facing cancellations to keep their current plan for up to two years.
Landrieu and Udall's cause received a kick-start earlier this week when former President Bill Clinton, who has long advocated in favor of the health care law, said he thought the law should be changed to let people keep their current plans.
“I personally believe — even if it takes a change in the law — the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got,” Clinton said in an interview with the website Ozy.com.
These new Democratic efforts to “fix” Obamacare, however, could actually prove disastrous for the law.
The Department of Health and Human Services has already struggled to persuade people to sign up for insurance plans through the federal exchanges. Despite Obama’s oft-repeated promise, allowing people to keep their existing plans could suck millions of potential customers out of the exchanges — customers the law relies on to remain sustainable.
Neither the White House nor Senate Democatic Leader Harry Reid have taken a position on the Democratic senators' proposals.
On Wednesday, Reid said he planned to hold a rare Thursday meeting with all Senate Democrats and White House officials to consider the new proposals. Reid declined to comment on anything related to health care during his weekly press conference, saying he would have more details after Thursday’s meeting.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said the president is looking into “options.”
“The president has instructed his team to come up with options for him to review,” Carney told reporters on Wednesday. “And you can expect a decision from him and announcement from him sooner rather than later on options that we can take to address the problem that we've been discussing here with regards to those individuals who have had their individual insurance plans cancelled because of the transition to the Affordable Care Act marketplaces."
Senate Republicans appeared positively gleeful about the Demorats’ efforts to change the law.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested he would not support Landrieu’s bill if it came for a vote.
“We think the thing ought to be repealed and replaced entirely. We think it can’t possibly work,” McConnell said. “And I’m somewhat suspicious about red state Democrats who are up in ’14 trying to promote some way out of their political dilemma. If they really want to fix Obamacare, they will join with us, repeal it and start over step by step to deal with the problem, which was the number of people uninsured.”
In the House, Republican Rep. Fred Upton, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has unveiled his own proposal to allow people to stay on their current plans. House Republican leaders have scheduled a vote on the bill for Friday, and it is expected to pass with at least some Democratic support.
Meanwhile, House Republican committee chairmen continue to hammer away at federal officials and private contractors responsible for the law's implementation.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday, for instance, hauled in IT specialists working to fix the website for a hearing about their progress.
Under questioning, the panel reported that the federal government had already spent “north of $600 million” on the project as of late September and even more during the repair process.
"The site is getting better week by week,” said Todd Park, the White House’s chief technology officer for the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Some days are better than others."