Here we go: HHS official hints at extending ObamaCare enrollment period as Joe Manchin drafts bill to delay mandate; Update: WH wants six-week extension?

The ice is starting to crack. First, Manchin:

Republican Marco Rubio of Florida is working on legislation to delay the mandate indefinitely — which Manchin’s office says the senator does not support — and it’s entirely possible the GOP could push for a delay provision to be included as an amendment vote to the next moving vehicle, using Manchin’s effort as leverage inside the Dome and as political fodder outside it, from entities such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

It’s not yet clear what the bill would look like. Manchin’s office only would confirm that it’s being discussed and the senator is looking for co-sponsors.

The reason it’s not clear what the bill would look like is because Manchin doesn’t care what it looks like. He knows it won’t pass; Democrats can’t risk wreaking havoc on insurers by suddenly exempting the young and healthy from buying insurance when sick people are coming onto the rolls. He’s doing this not because he believes delay is good policy (I think) but because a splashy proposal to put some distance between him and Obama might impress voters back home. For Manchin, at least, it’s time to head for the lifeboats on ObamaCare. And he’s not the only Democrat who’s inching his way towards that side of the ship:

Dem Rep. Rick Nolan told reporters after a White House briefing this morning that what they told him about “was not the least bit reassuring.” He and fellow House Dem Sean Maloney are now calling for heads to roll over the website. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said later this afternoon that he thinks someone should be canned too.

Meanwhile, at HHS:

The administration declined to say whether people who purchase health coverage late in the enrollment period—say, on March 31—would be exempt from a penalty, even if their policy doesn’t kick in until April or May. Nor would the department give a specific date by which people would need to buy coverage to escape a fine. The HHS official, however, indicated that the administration may extend the deadline beyond Feb. 15: “We are exploring options currently and will issue guidance at a later date.”…

There is another sign that the penalty policy may be in flux: While HHS referred MarketWatch’s previous inquiries about the fine, and the deadline to avoid it, to the Treasury, a spokesperson there referred a request Wednesday back to HHS, suggesting that the health officials are now the ones writing new rules for the law.

What’s the difference between extending the enrollment period and delaying the mandate? Well, for one thing, after three years of ferocious Republican attacks (replete with a landmark Supreme Court suit) on the mandate, saying that they’re merely extending the enrollment period would let the White House save a bit of extra face in confirming that the GOP was right to think O-Care wasn’t ready for primetime. Beyond that, though, if you leave the February 15th mandate deadline in effect while extending the period of enrollment from March 31st into, say, July, you run into two big problems. One: If you’ve already paid the penalty in mid-February, why would you then go ahead and buy insurance before July? You’ve already fulfilled your legal obligation to Uncle Sam. Two: The only reason you might buy insurance after you’ve already paid the penalty is because you’ve fallen ill or gotten in an accident and now desperately need insurance — and thanks to ObamaCare’s new rules about preexisting conditions, insurers wouldn’t be able to turn you down. That’s another variation of the death spiral, where only the sick and injured bother to enroll while everyone else stays out of the pool. If you want to extend the enrollment period to encourage the healthy to sign up, you might as well delay the mandate entirely by pushing back the penalty deadline too. But if you do that, you’re also in death-spiral territory because you’re relaxing the incentive on the young and healthy to enroll ASAP. There’s no obvious way out of this maze except fixing the site quickly — or delaying the whole law, of course. Tick tock.

Exit question: Didn’t House Republicans recently offer to end the shutdown in exchange for delaying the individual mandate? Does O want a second shot at that offer?

Update: That was fast:

I think what that means is that they’re sticking with March 31st as the official deadline — emphasis on “official.” Right now, in order to avoid the mandate penalty, you need to sign up by February 15th or so to make sure that your enrollment’s processed by 3/31. Sounds like the White House wants to tweak the reporting requirements somehow so that you really can sign up as late as the last day of March without suffering any penalty. Either that or they’re going to push the official deadline back six weeks, from March 31 to mid-May. Just one problem in that case, though: It would be illegal.