Democrats Fume at White House Over Affordable Care Act’s Troubles

Posted November 13, 2013 at 5:59pm

A broken promise, plunging poll ratings and the disastrous start for have rattled President Barack Obama’s party, and the impatient rank and file want solutions, not just an apology, from the commander in chief.

“There’s a brewing revolt among Democrats,” said one member of the House Democratic Caucus who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to describe the scene at Wednesday’s closed-door meeting, where members vented their frustration at White House officials for the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted Wednesday that the administration remains on track to fix the troubled website by the end of the month, and he said Obama would decide “sooner rather than later” how to ease the burden on the millions of Americans whose health insurance policies have been canceled in spite of his oft-repeated promise that “if you like your plan, you can keep it.”

But Obama’s fellow Democrats have started to lose faith, and time is of the essence: The House will vote Friday on a GOP bill that would allow insurance companies to revive scrapped health insurance policies. Unless Democrats are certain that a remedy is on the way, many will be inclined to vote “yes.”

Even progressive Democrats and staunch allies of leadership had strong words for the White House officials dispatched to meet with House Democrats on Wednesday morning, according to sources in the room — and the White House is sure to hear another dose of angst Thursday, when aides meet with Senate Democrats.

“We’ve got a problem, and we gotta fix it, and we’re looking for what the White House response is gonna be,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who still hasn’t decided how he will vote on the bill sponsored by Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.

“I think in diplomatic terms we had a frank discussion,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. “I think there was a lot of frustration and, in some cases, anger vented towards the White House for their continued ham-fisted approach. It’s not just their credibility that’s on the line, but it’s our credibility.”

“Why can’t we call people who know how to do these things, who do it for corporate America, and say, ‘We have a website, fix it?’” asked Rep. José E. Serrano, D-N.Y. “Maybe I’m being simplistic, but can’t we call Bill Gates up and say, ‘Take care of this?’ Or go to a college dorm and say, ‘You guys, you invented Yahoo, can you take care of this?’”

And that Nov. 30 deadline?

“Don’t come here telling us it will be fixed by Nov. 30,” Serrano said.

Many Democrats had kept their concerns about the health care law to themselves because they were promised that the political price of passing a piece of monumentally controversial legislation would be worth it in the end. No more.

Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., said it’s not clear whether the White House is up to the “heavy lifting” required to bring the law to fruition and have it function the way its advocates intended.

“Nancy had to push this through,” Moran said, referring to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who shepherded the health care law to passage in March 2010 as speaker. “There was a long period where I know our leadership felt that the White House could have been promoting this better and also clarifying what they meant to a better extent that they did. And while we can do the lifting of the legislation, they have to do the heavy lifting of the implementation. That’s their job.”

But expressing exasperation and taking legislative action against Democratic leadership and the White House — both contingents oppose the Upton bill as another Republican attempt to undermine Obamacare — are two separate things, and that is requiring House Democrats to do some soul-searching.

“On the one hand, I am concerned that by voting for it, it undermines the basic reforms we worked so hard to get in the ACA,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., who said he was “wrestling” with how he would vote on Friday. “And I have to weigh that concern against ‘but you promised.’”

Moran plans to vote “no” on the Upton bill, but he said he understands why so many of his colleagues would feel compelled to vote “yes.”

“I never said that, my colleagues never said that,” Moran said of the “if you like it, you can keep it” promise. “[Obama] doesn’t have to run again. I don’t know why he has to make such grandiose claims, I mean, I support him, but some of this stuff is gratuitous rhetoric that’s not helpful.”

Senate Democrats are also grappling with the fallout — with momentum picking up for a bill by Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., that would require insurance companies to keep offering existing plans to existing customers, in contrast to Upton’s bill which makes that an option for insurers.

Landrieu’s bill has support from some of her progressive colleagues including Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and the White House might not hate it, either — Carney said the measure shared the same goal of the president and said the White House would work with Landrieu and others on a fix.

Upton suggested he was open to the Landrieu bill, too.

“Let’s see if they can pass anything. Hers is just a bill; let’s see if they can do it,” Upton said.

In conversations with CQ Roll Call on Wednesday, House Democrats who intend to oppose Upton’s bill had difficulty reconciling how some Senate Democrats are pursuing an opposite track.

On their side of the Capitol, they are busy worrying about the optics of so many politically embarrassing Democratic defections.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., who will oppose the Upton bill, said much of it came down to politics.

“People on the Hill understand they are elected, and elections come up next November. And you know a lot of people put their careers on the line,” Cleaver said.

“I just eulogized my closest friend in Congress, Ike Skelton, who lost his seat over this issue,” Cleaver continued, referring to the Missouri Democrat who lost his House seat in the GOP wave of 2010 and died in October.

Landrieu, a moderate Democrat in a red state, is up for re-election in 2014.

Steven T. Dennis, Meredith Shiner and Matt Fuller contributed to this report.