Can Obama unite Democrats around ObamaCare?
The party is threatening to fracture over the troubled health-care law
With his approval ratings dropping over the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's allies in Congress are threatening to abandon him in a blind, every-man-for-himself bid to survive the 2014 elections — an outcome that would surely weaken Obama's signature domestic achievement and the Democratic Party, perhaps for a long time to come.
In addition to getting ObamaCare on its feet, the administration now faces another monumental task: Keeping the Democratic Party together. And it won't be easy, after this week exposed gaping fissures that have long been overshadowed by the spectacle of the Republican Party.
Seeking to put out the latest fire, Obama announced Thursday that insurers could continue to offer plans that would otherwise be scrapped under the health-care law. That was enough to placate some senators who had called for the president to take action to keep Americans from losing their coverage.
But liberals groaned that the ObamaCare fix would end up undermining the law, part of a pattern of the White House caving in out of political convenience. Here's Reid J. Epstein at Politico:
It’s all part of the growing liberal angst about Obama’s health-care rollout. The failure of HealthCare.gov to launch was one thing, but Obama’s move Thursday to allow people to keep substandard insurance policies is, for many of them, a bridge too far. They want Obama to make sure the law isn’t killed piece by piece and don’t like the idea of giving the health-insurance industry more power than it already has. [Politico]
Meanwhile, vulnerable Democrats in the Senate said Obama had not gone far enough. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is proposing a legislative alternative that would require insurers to extend existing coverage, said in a statement she was "encouraged" by the announcement, but that she would nevertheless "be working today and throughout the weeks ahead to support legislation to fix this problem."
Sens. Kay Hagan, (D-N.C.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), and Jeanne Sheehan (D-N.H.) — who likewise all face re-election next year in red or purple states — also backed a legislative fix.
And even among those breakaway Democrats, there's no consensus on how to counter Obama's proposal.
Hagan has said she supports the Landrieu bill because it would be a permanent rather than a one-year delay on phasing out bad insurance plans. Begich and Sheehan, though, favor a proposal drafted by Colorado Democrat Sen. Mark Udall that would let people keep their insurance plans for two more years.
"I think we have to move forward on the legislative plan," Begich told CNN, because the Obama option was "not enough."
With the midterm elections on the horizon, vulnerable Democrats understandably want to put some distance between themselves and the White House. Voters have lost faith in the president because of his broken promise, and embracing the administration's fixes while offering no alternatives could play poorly next year if ObamaCare remains a wedge issue.
In addition, lawmakers don't want the president to get all the credit for keeping people from losing their coverage with his unilateral fix. In pushing for a legislative remedy, swing-state Democrats would be able to tell their constituents that they, too, had a hand in the solution.
Still, Congress may not get a final say in the matter.
The House is schedule to vote Friday on a proposed fix drafted by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), though that bill would be dead on arrival in the Senate. And a Senate alternative, even if it were to come up for a vote and pass, would likely get nixed immediately in the House.
In that respect, the administration's offering is "probably the only fix we're getting," wrote The Washington Post's Greg Sargent, "and the rest of the machinations among Dems are probably going to amount to little more than noise and posturing."
Democrats could also quietly come around on the administration's fix, especially if it ends up working. Landrieu, for instance, told Politico the law would "probably" need a legislative fix, but cautioned that it was too soon to "underestimate the power of a presidential directive."
For now, though, party unity remains elusive, leaving the administration even more vulnerable to Republican attacks. And with Republicans united behind one simple message (Obama lied, the law is broken), the party is playing right into the unflattering, politically damaging "Democrats in disarray" stereotype.
Obama's options at this point are pretty much down to one: Get ObamaCare working, and fast.