House Democrats’ Frustration With Obamacare Rollout Reaches Fever Pitch

Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:05pm

House Democrats emerged from a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday morning worn thin from arguing with White House officials over the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

One source in the room described Democratic lawmakers from across the political spectrum — from moderates in vulnerable districts to progressives in safe seats — as frustrated with the administration in equal measure.

They pushed David Simas, the White House deputy senior adviser for communications and strategy, to account for the glitches on the enrollment website and for President Barack Obama’s unfulfilled promise to Americans that if they liked their health insurance policies, they could keep them, regardless of what changes would be ushered in by the new health care law.

“I think in diplomatic terms we had a frank discussion,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said. “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,'” said 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?’

“Don’t come here telling us it will be fixed by Nov. 30,” he continued, speaking of the White House.

The caucus meeting with Simas occurred two days before the House is scheduled to vote on legislation, sponsored by Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., that would grandfather in health insurance policies that have been abruptly canceled for millions of Americans.

House Democratic leaders are united in their opposition to the legislation, calling it the 46th Republican vote to undermine the health care law.

The White House is also against the bill, a position Simas reiterated at the caucus meeting, according to Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.

“Mr. Upton’s bill, in their opinion, would bifurcate the insurance market and allow for substandard plans to be offered, and so they were talking about the ultimate impact of voting for it, that in fact it would allow plans that had very high deductibles, very low coverage … to not be covered,” Kaptur told reporters outside the room.

But a sizable portion of Democrats could defect and vote “yes,” worried for the political implications of a “no” vote and for the optics of voting against a bill that, on its surface, simply makes good a pledge they made to their constituents.

At a post-caucus news conference, House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., told reporters that leaders would be spending the week educating caucus members about how the Upton bill is just another Republican tool to chip away at the health care law’s foundation.

“My colleagues … recognize the sacrifices that were made by our caucus in the passage of this law,” Crowley added. “Democrats in our caucus were responsible for the passage of this bill … and we took a great deal of heat for it, but understanding, in the end, that what were were doing was in the best interest of the country.

“They are committed to seeing this bill through,” Crowley said.

There are a few ways caucus members on the fence could be won over to vote “no” on the Upton bill in addition to lobbying by leaders, who have not yet decided whether to launch a formal whip operation against the legislation.

One is for the White House to move forward with an “administrative fix” to ease the burden on individuals who have had their policies canceled. An announcement by Friday, before the vote on the Upton bill, would be helpful for Democrats, but as of Wednesday morning there was no decision as to what the fix might look like and when it would be unveiled.

Kaptur said that Democrats were also discussing with Simas what other vehicles could be used to let caucus members express their frustration without having to vote “yes” on Upton’s legislation. One likely option is a Democratic motion to recommit that would fail on the House floor but would at least put members on the record as supporting some sort of remedy for Americans who have lost their preferred insurance plans.

Costa, who said he was “seriously looking at” voting for the Upton bill, was unmoved by the option of a motion to recommit.

“I think an MTR means little,” he said. “The fact is, members want to be able to come back to their constituents and say, ‘I’ve tried to do everything I possibly can to allow you to keep your existing policies if that’s what you choose.’ I think it was said repeatedly in the caucus just a moment ago, it’s a matter of keeping one’s word.”