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Democrats Try To Stanch Political Bleeding From Obamacare

President Obama speaks about his signature health care law Thursday at the White House.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama speaks about his signature health care law Thursday at the White House.

Among the Affordable Care Act's accomplishments is that it took the remarkable Democratic Party unity that existed during the government shutdown and smashed it to smithereens in near record time.

In sharp contrast to the image of Democrats standing shoulder to shoulder with President Obama during the recent fiscal fight, it's distance from Obama, not proximity to the president, that many Democrats are now seeking.

The problems of the site and the poor first-month enrollment numbers released Wednesday are bad enough.

But it's the cancellation of health care policies — the ones the president unwisely promised that people would be allowed to keep — that has become political kryptonite for Democrats.

Facing re-election next year and seeing a growing threat to their ability to maintain Senate control, congressional Democrats are increasingly trying to separate themselves from the political blowback from the cancellations. To some degree that means trying to separate themselves from the administration as well.

As Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, uncharitably described it Wednesday: "There is a stampede developing from House and Senate Democrats away from Obamacare."

Call it a stampede or a separation, it's taking different forms as Democrats try to build themselves some shelter from the fallout.

A bill introduced by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., that would let individuals keep canceled policies that didn't meet the health law's minimum standards has at least two House Democrats as co-sponsors despite the administration's warning that the bill was really a Trojan horse aimed at undermining the larger law.

The fear that more House Democrats, maybe dozens, would defect and vote for Upton's bill — which is scheduled for a vote Friday — put intense pressure on the White House to come up with a solution before then. The president responded with a change in rules that would allow people with current plans that don't meet the law's minimum requirements to keep them for at least a year longer.

But that still would leave House Democrats with the choice of either registering a "yes" or "no" vote on Upton's problematic (from the perspective of Obamacare supporters) "Keep Your Health Plan" bill, with no alternative legislation to vote for. For purposes of their re-election campaigns next year, they needed to be able to say they voted for a fix to the cancellation problems.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat and minority leader, announced Thursday that House Democrats would try to offer an alternative to Upton's bill Friday. She told reporters:

"But we'll have a proposal for our members to vote on tomorrow, which addresses the problem, which is a fix. We don't have a likelihood of passage. ... We'll see what form it takes. We'll see what the [House] Rules Committee allows us. We would love for them to give us [a chance to offer] an alternative, but they are unlikely to do that. But we'll exercise our parliamentary options with something tomorrow. So think of a belt and suspenders. ... What the president will put forth will be one. What we put forth will be the other. And everything will be under control tomorrow afternoon."

The House proposal is likely to mirror one from Senate Democrats introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who faces a tough re-election slog next year in a very red state. Several Democrats have signed on to her bill, the "Keeping the Affordable Care Promise Act."

Democrats say it isn't as bad an option as Upton's since it wouldn't allow new individuals who don't currently have such policies to buy them. But it could still harm Obamacare by reducing the incentive for more individuals, especially younger, healthier ones, to buy plans that conform to the new law.

But that's not the kind of harm that's top of mind right now for many congressional Democrats.

The kind of damage they're trying to control was evident in a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday that indicated Democrats have lost a 9-percentage-point lead over Republicans on the generic ballot question over who should control the House. Democrats and Republicans are now tied.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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