Senate Republicans all but shouted that Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to go nuclear was about one thing: changing the subject from the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
While Democrats pushed back and focused on what they called GOP obstruction, it's clear that any shift away from Obamacare is a buoy for Democrats, especially those facing reelection in 2014.
Uncertainty surrounding what will happen next with President Obama's signature program and whether the outcome will be positive is making Democrats anxious; political polling justifies that anxiety, and Reid has signaled he's prepared to tackle a bevy of high-profile bills that could distract from the troubled law.
Politically, the problem-plagued rollout of the new health care law appears to be taking a toll on Democrats. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has seen her approval rating drop more than 10 points in a new poll. Earlier this month, 39 House Democrats defected and voted for a bill to "fix" Obamacare drafted by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Landrieu and other senators facing voters in 2014 have offered their own bills aimed at repairing the legislation's flaws. Obama himself memorably admitted during a recent news conference just how problematic the issue had become for Democrats.
Reid, D-Nev., can mitigate the political problems for his colleagues by closely regulating the floor schedule in the Senate. He's motivated to do it, too. For one, his priority is protecting his vulnerable members, according to Jim Manley, a former top aide to Reid. That invariably translates to protecting his status as majority leader too.
The schedule lends itself to Reid's aims as well because of measures perceived as must-pass facing senators when they return Dec. 9.
For one, there is immense pressure on the Senate to finish the $625 billion defense authorization bill or risk leaving incomplete legislation that Congress has passed every year for five decades.
The budget conference committee led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will also issue its recommendations before the Christmas break, and lawmakers—appropriators especially—have signaled they want to act sooner rather than later with the Jan. 15 lapse in appropriations quickly approaching.
Plus, nominations could occupy the Senate's time when members return. A senior Democratic aide said Reid plans to move quickly on key nominations now that they can be approved by a simple majority vote. Those include appointments that have been blocked by Republicans, such as Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to head a federal housing agency, and nominees for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Confirming Homeland Security Secretary-designate Jeh Johnson will also be a post-break priority, the aide said. There could still be snags: Even in the new, post-nuclear Senate, Republicans can still stretch the time it takes to consider pending nominees.
The uncertainty surrounding what will happen after the White House's self-imposed deadline of Nov. 30 for fixing the flawed Obamacare website HealthCare.gov is also generating a good deal of unease for Democrats.
Rosy scenarios could see Americans signing up for health insurance in greater numbers, more positive anecdotes of the public's interaction with the law, and better news in the headlines. But that's far from a sure thing, say Democratic strategists.
"The first thing you do is, pray it works," said veteran Democratic strategist Tony Podesta. "The second thing you do is, draft or get on a bill that mitigates the effects."
That's the approach followed by Landrieu and others. Her bill aims at upholding the promise that Americans can keep their existing health coverage if they want.
If implementation of the law begins to turn a corner, say strategists, so much the better for Democrats, but if not, lawmakers will get anxious and could clamor for a vote, Podesta said.
It's an outcome Senate Democratic leaders appear to be bracing for. If members do start approaching Reid for a floor vote on a bill aimed at fixing the law, he would consider it, a senior Democratic Senate aide said. So far that hasn't happened yet.
Whether it's too early for Democrats to begin that push, strategists are reluctant to say. Jef Pollock of the Global Strategies Group points out that the midterm election is still 11 months away. Weeks ago, he pointed out, Washington obsessed over the GOP's forced error over the shutdown. Now it's the rollout of Obamacare.
Do Democrats need a vote to provide them political cover at this point?
"None of us know," he said.
This article appears in the November 25, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.