Anything but Obamacare Is on Harry Reid’s Agenda

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) talks to reporters about the use of the 'nuclear option' with Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) at the U.S. Capitol November 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 52-48 to invoke the so-called 'nuclear option', voting to change Senate rules on the controversial filibuster for most presidential nominations with a simple majority vote. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Nov. 24, 2013, 10:29 a.m.

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 Health­ 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.

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