President Obama might have temporarily defused a political powder keg within his own party on Thursday, but the Affordable Care Act shows signs of continued volatility, with congressional Democrats keeping a wary eye on the law's ongoing rollout and mulling whether to respond legislatively.
White House advisers, including Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, deployed to Capitol Hill to allay growing Democratic fears over the fumbled startup of the president's signature initiative, by and large securing support from Democratic leaders but leaving politically vulnerable members in a difficult position.
"The White House has learned a lesson that you shouldn't over-promise. You need to be able to do what you say and say what you do," said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.
McDonough showcased dozens of small improvements to HealthCare.gov, the struggling website for the federal insurance exchange, which helped reduce tensions among many frustrated House Democrats.
Senate Democrats emerging from a closed-door meeting with White House officials at the Capitol fell into two categories: leadership and others who said legislation to fix the law's flaws was no longer needed, and those, including red-state Democrats like Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who said congressional action would probably be necessary.
"I said the president's announcement this morning was a great first step and we will probably need legislation to make it stick," said Landrieu, who already has proposed legislation to make changes in the health care law.
Added Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.: "It's a step in the right direction. We may need to go farther."
Even if legislation is pursued, it would face a rocky road. "There isn't a bill out there that could pass both the House and the Senate," a senior Democratic Senate aide said. "The constructive fixes have to be done administratively."
The aide added: "Are we going to go in a different direction? Are we going to say we still want legislation? I think that's still being discussed."
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., backed the White House's proposal, telling reporters after the meeting that there's no need for legislation to fix the law. He also suggested he doesn't believe Republicans will act in good faith anyway to make any needed changes to the law.
"We have yet to hear the first Republican in the House or the Senate stand up and say, I'm ready to sit down and talk about constructive changes in the Affordable Care Act," Durbin said. "Their goal is clear. Defund it. Destroy it."
House Democratic leaders depicted a bill hitting the floor Friday from Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., as a step toward repealing Obamacare, and will offer a motion to recommit. The Upton bill would let people keep their insurance plans without requiring the companies to actually sell them. "We think our Democrats … a large part of them will be against the Upton bill," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
But a number of vulnerable House Democrats are still undecided or open to voting for the proposal, such as Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia. Groups are running ads against him in his district, tying him to Obama's promise that people who like their plans can keep them.
"I'm concerned about my integrity with voters who have returned me here for 38 years," Rahall said. "They know me well enough to know I wouldn't purposefully mislead them and that I'm an honest straight-shooter, and always reflect their values.... I just need to find the answers myself."
For his part, Obama acknowledged the political trouble he caused Democrats, suggesting just how deeply the law's implementation may have wounded the party.
"There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they're running or not, because they stood up and supported this effort through thick and thin," Obama said Thursday. "And I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them rather than easier for them to continue to promote the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place."
Sam Baker contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 15, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.