There are basically two kinds of lawmakers on Capitol Hill: those who don’t support Obamacare and those who do.
Those who don’t like the law have all sorts of ways to express disapproval. But what about Democrats who want to support the Affordable Care Act and yet feel compelled to address the messy rollout?
A group of Senate Democrats have zeroed in on one strategy: extending the enrollment period under which people can sign up for health care through the insurance exchanges. Ten have signed onto a letter from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius calling for just that—although they don’t specify how long that deadline should be extended.
“It’s something the White House is going to have to consider.... They’ve got to give it a good, hard look,” says Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “The bottom line is everyone still supports the goals behind Obamacare. No one can support how this thing has rolled out so far, so this letter reflects the anxiety that some members of the caucus have.”
The group includes not only moderate, red-state Democrats facing reelection in 2014, like Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, but also reliable liberals like Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and those who aren’t up for reelection until 2018, like Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico. Michael Bennet of Colorado, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also signed the letter. Shaheen herself is facing reelection in 2014.
When asked whether the open-enrollment period should be extended, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin, said, “I want to hear the White House’s response on how quickly they’ll be able to take care of the problem.”
The Shaheen group’s initiative is markedly different from the effort undertaken by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is drafting a bill to delay the individual-mandate penalty for one year.
By contrast, extending the enrollment period may be more politically palatable, even though the two strategies may play out similarly in practice.
Shaheen has cast her input not as barbs or bills to move through Congress, but as simple suggestions directed to the administration. Don’t expect any kind of legislative fix to come of it; leadership has no plans to bring something to the floor that would extend the enrollment period, according to an aide. Rather, many view it as a conversation between lawmakers and the White House.
The White House has said it will give Americans until March 31, 2014, to sign up for health insurance before they would be penalized. “Extending this period will give consumers critical time in which to become familiar with the website and choose a plan that is best for them,” the senators wrote on Friday. “Individuals should not be penalized for lack of coverage if they are unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems.”
The administration expects HealthCare.gov to be up and running smoothly by Nov. 30. But that hasn’t quieted lawmakers’ concerns. Durbin said, “I have a few more questions I want to ask before I make a final decision” on whether he’s satisfied with that time frame.
The White House did not respond when asked about the senators’ letter, but Shaheen said she’s going to continue her efforts.
“The law said that people were going to have six months to enroll,” she said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. “Unlike a lot of the proposals that we have seen from people whose goal is to repeal it to make sure it doesn’t work, I want it to work.”
This article appears in the October 29, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Senate Dems Try Tough Love On Obamacare.