New Year, Old Headaches for Democrats on Obamacare Bills

At a closed-door caucus meeting, Waxman urged his Democratic colleagues to vote against the bills coming to the floor Friday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Democratic leaders, busy with a public relations blitz over Republicans’ refusal to extend expired unemployment insurance, aren’t terribly preoccupied with the pair of Republican bills coming on the floor Friday to undermine the Affordable Care Act.

They aren’t whipping colleagues against the measures, nor are they spending time running interference among the moderate members who might want to vote “yes” to score political points back home.

“There is a long list of critical items the House should take action on ... rather than wasting time on unnecessary bills,” shrugged a senior Democratic leadership aide.

Democrats might be able to ignore the bills this time around, but they are up for 11 months of intermittent headaches over the same issues: House Republicans say they have no plans to let up their attack on Obamacare anytime soon, and Democrats should be prepared to confront many uncomfortable votes on the law between now and the midterm elections.

“Holding Democrats accountable for their support for this awful program is part of our responsibility,” said an aide with House Republican leadership.

Several months ago, House Republicans traded in their full repeal strategy for one of “targeted strikes” at specific portions of the health care law, recognizing that the former tactic had no chance of success in the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House.

Like the measures that came before them, the two bills to be voted on by the week’s end don’t stand much chance of getting signed into law, either — they would, respectively, mandate that victims of security breaches through HealthCare.gov get notification within two days, and that the Obama administration publish regular reports on insurance enrollment numbers.

But Republicans are aiming to use Obamacare bills to back vulnerable Democrats into corners and to lure others who can’t deny that certain areas of the health care law do, in fact, need fixing.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California has typically held an ironclad grip on members when it comes to the core of the heath care law, but Democrats have come to accept the reality of defections on smaller-ball bills.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York is inclined to forgive “frontliners” their “yes” votes on GOP health care bills.

And at a closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting on Wednesday, House Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., delivered a pitch to members asking that they oppose the bills coming to the floor on Friday, while acknowledging that there would be some who would feel compelled to support one or both of the measures.

The question is just how many party breaks there will be on Friday? Some Democrats might still be reeling from the meltdown in November, where discontent with the health care law’s rocky implementation reached a fever pitch and 39 members voted with Republicans on a bill to counteract President Barack Obama’s broken, “if you like it, you can keep it” promise.

If it turns out there aren’t many Democratic “yes” votes, it could be because the angst from a few months prior has dissipated.

"The reality is, a dysfunctional website was bad for a month or two, but now we are seeing the website work, more and more people enrolling, and the tide somewhat turning," said one staffer for a senior Democrat.

It also could be that the underlying effects of the two bills are easier to translate for members on the fence, from a messaging standpoint. Democrats who are against the measures point out that while they might seem like good ideas on the surface, the requirements would pose undue burdens on government officials and actually hamper the administration’s ability to run programs under the health care law effectively.

“They are gotcha bills. They are bills that have titles that have nothing to do with what they will actually do,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California on Wednesday. “Members are taking a look … [and] we told members to look closely.”

But Republicans are still holding out hope that Democrats will weaken under the pressure of an onslaught of Obamacare bills, on Friday and going forward.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Daniel Scarpinato is especially confident.

"It's going to prove impossible for any Democrats who voted for or supported ObamaCare to run away from that support in 2014, no matter what they do," he said in a statement to 218. "The disarray among House Democrats on this issue only highlights how desperate they are to revise history."