The Corner

For Senate Democrats, Obama’s Word Not the Final Say

There may have been a time in Barack Obama’s presidency when a major public announcement like today’s would have seen his Democratic colleagues in Congress would have quickly rallied behind the idea. Now is not that time.

Leaving a briefing on the disastrous Obamacare rollout with White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough, Democratic senators made clear that the president’s announcement was unlikely to be the final word on the matter.

“I think that this is a start,” said Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal, adding, “I think there’s a lot of support for additional changes that may require legislation.”

Senator Mark Begich of Alaska said he still wants to see a legislative fix, and when asked by National Review Online whether the White House signaled support or opposition to that idea, he replied bluntly “That’s not relevant to me.”

Obama’s plan is “moving in the right direction,” said Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. “We will probably need legislation to make it stick,” added Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. 

“If I’d been president, I would not have made that decision,” said Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa as he walked into the meeting. “It means that for another year there’s going to be people in our country that will not be covered,” he added.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a top member of Democratic leadership, suggested a level of distrust about claims McDonough made in the meeting about the impact of the proposal on the insurance market.

“We believe, or at least, the White House believes, that the way they’ve constructed this is going to lessen that possibility,” he said, referring to predictions that letting people stay on their current plans will increase prices for people purchasing insurance on the exchanges.

Two top liberals, Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, both of Vermont, declined to comment. “Give me a ring in the office on that one, okay?” the normally loquacious Sanders said. He wasn’t alone in his reticence: Begich practically sprinted from the meeting room to a nearby elevator. North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp spoke at length to a reporter about an unrelated energy-regulation issue, but when another scribe brought up Obamacare, she professed an urgent need to get to the Senate floor.

For the Democratic senators who did think Obama’s proposed solution hit the mark, there was still deep frustration about the overall rollout of the health-care law.

“I’m comfortable where we are. I’m not necessarily opposed to a legislative fix, but I think the key thing is to get that damned website operating properly and then we can go on from there,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Notably, in the meeting, McDonough told the senators that the website is “on schedule” to meet a White House–imposed deadline to get the Healthcare.gov website working by November 30, according to Maryland senator Ben Cardin. McDonough was “very optimistic” about the website fixes, added Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

Still, Democrats hurting in the polls were in “trust, but verify” mode. “We’re going to continue monitoring the implementation,” said Senator Michael Bennet, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The most important thing for our incumbents is that the implementation go well,” he added.  

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