Panic: Infighting starts as Obamacare supporters beg Dems not to go full Landrieu

posted at 9:21 pm on November 13, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

You can find nary a Democrat to speak on the record defending Obamacare’s abysmal enrollment numbers, but reporters seem to be able to find plenty who will talk about each other and the president’s betrayal of his promise.

“Brewing revolt”:

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.

The few remaining Democrats in the House willing to speak out against an “If you like your plan, you can keep it” bill are stuck trying to explain how keeping the president’s promise by passing extremely popular legislation in the face of plummeting poll numbers is a bad idea while the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate leads the charge on a similar bill:

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.

Megan McArdle puts Crowley’s and the White House’s challenge in perspective as they try to convince vulnerable politicians to hold on yet again for this law:

But they’re so desperate to get on record as trying to help people out of the mess that is Obamacare that they’re willing to vote for any version of the bill they all roundly rejected in 2010, when it could have solved the problem. One option Democrat leadership might try to offer them:

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.”

Sen. Tom Harkin may qualify for most clueless soundbite of the day, and that’s saying something:

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) urged Democrats not to retreat from Obamacare because the “new value system” of making sure consumers are provided a basic standard of coverage is worth it. “To the extent that we start picking up on what Sen. Landrieu wants,” he said, “we never move to the new system.”

“We don’t want to continue those bad policies. People had policies that were good for them as long as they were healthy,” Harkin said. “It’s not even a short-term fix. It’s not the way to go. Let’s stick to what we’ve got. They’re fixing the website — people can still sign up with paper or phone … And it’s going to get even better. So I don’t see any problems.”

Ezra Klein begs for another suicide charge to save the law:

1. The Affordable Care Act’s political position has deteriorated dramatically over the last week. President Bill Clinton’s statement that the law should be reopened to ensure everyone who likes their health plans can keep them was a signal event. It gives congressional Democrats cover to begin breaking with the Obama administration…

4. The bill Landrieu is offering could really harm the law. It would mean millions of people who would’ve left the individual insurance market and gone to the exchanges will stay right where they are. Assuming those people skew younger, healthier, and richer — and they do — Obamacare’s premiums will rise. Meanwhile, many people who could’ve gotten better insurance on the exchanges will stay in bad plans that will leave them bankrupt when they get sick.
“I think it would be a real substantive mistake to do the Landrieu bill,” says MIT health economist Jon Gruber, a supporter of the Affordable Care Act.

5. Put simply, the Landrieu bill solves one of Obamacare’s political problems at the cost of worsening its most serious policy problem: Adverse selection. Right now, the difficulty of signing up is deterring all but the most grimly determined enrollees. The most determined enrollees are, by and large, sicker and older. So the Web site’s problems are leading to a sicker, older risk pool. Landrieu’s bill will lead to a sicker, older risk pool. Obamacare has provisions meant to stop an out-of-control death spiral, but higher premiums are a real danger. (For more on that, see “Seven reasons Obamacare isn’t facing a death spiral.”)

6. How much will premiums rise if Landrieu’s bill passes? No one knows. “It sure would be good to know how bad that problem is,” says Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “I don’t feel I know.” Jon Gruber agrees. “I don’t know how much higher premiums go,” he sighs. “I really don’t.” I asked Landrieu’s office whether they had any estimates. “We expect the impact to be very minimal as this bill is designed as a transitional fix,” says a staffer.

Meanwhile, who will speak for the enrollment numbers? No one, it seems.

Exit quotation: “To be completely honest with you, we had a difficult time booking Democrats to come on after those numbers were released, to have them come on and talk about fixing the problem.”

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