For a president and congressional Democrats under siege for months last year during the disastrous HealthCare.gov rollout, Tuesday’s news of 7 million exchange sign-ups came as vindication four years in the making.
The White House rolled out the full victory lap regalia — capped by a sunny Rose Garden statement by President Barack Obama on the resuscitation of his signature legislative achievement.
It has been a rocky period for the White House, with few opportunities for celebration. The administration has faced near-daily challenges in implementing the Affordable Care Act, with Obama’s poll ratings underwater, his legislative agenda stalled, the Democratic Senate potentially in play in November and members of his own party scrambling for cover.
But this time, the president wasn’t talking about a distant foreign crisis or a government shutdown. Nor was he apologizing for a broken website or a broken promise.
“This law is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s working,” the president declared to cheers from assembled supporters, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.
“The debate over repealing this law is over. The Affordable Care Act is here to stay,” Obama said.
He added that members of Congress who passed the law should be proud of what they accomplished and said he didn’t understand why people opposed the law and were trying so hard, in his words, to keep people from getting insurance.
And he said the horror stories peddled by the law’s opponents have not come true.
“There are still no death panels. Armageddon has not arrived. Instead this law is helping millions of Americans,” he said.
Pelosi, who took on the most congressional responsibility for delivering Democratic votes to pass the legislation — and lost the speaker’s gavel in the subsequent election — lunched with Obama. She spoke to reporters outside of the West Wing for a celebratory press conference of her own, breaking the news that 7 million had signed up for insurance through the exchanges.
Pelosi sought to put the law’s troubles behind her and her flock.
“It never for one instant occurred to me that the Affordable Care Act would collapse. Yes the website didn’t perform. We were very disappointed. It was an embarrassment. But it was an episode and it’s over. ... The consensus in our caucus was, ‘We’re going to ride this out.’”
Instead, she wanted to focus on the broader impact of the law — an end to pre-existing conditions and new options for affordable coverage.
She refused to engage much in the politics of the numbers.
“The number speaks to a healthy America ... that’s what we’re happy about,” she said.
But she said Democrats would continue to “pivot” to jobs legislation this fall.
“We’re not running on health care. We’re not running away from it,” she said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, so often on the defensive over the law’s bumpy rollout, was practically exultant Tuesday and clearly wanted to linger on the topic.
“Oh it is a good, good day here at the White House,” he said.
“I’ve been at the White House from the very beginning, and have seen people say that meaningful health care reform could not be done more times than I can count,” he said, before recounting many of the law’s hurdles, including a Supreme Court challenge, the re-election of the president and the Web woes.
“I could go on, and I have a feeling I will, but I hope the fact that this 7 million number has been reached allows us all to step back and look at the sweeping and positive change that the law has ushered in to strengthen health security for every American as they go through life,” Carney said.
“Republicans have spent millions on false negative ads, they’ve blocked Medicaid expansion in dozens of states, they’ve shut down the government and voted over 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“But, that effort could not stop this law from working, and it could not stop middle-class families from getting the health care security that they deserve.
“Amazingly, just this week, the speaker recommitted Republicans to their strategy of repealing the law. I hope you’ll ask the speaker this, how will that effort to repeal the law ensure that Americans have access to the same quality health care that members of Congress have.
I’d love to hear the answer.”
The GOP carped on the law from the sidelines and House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., put out his latest budget blueprint rededicating House Republicans to repealing the Affordable Care Act — although he keeps the Medicare cuts in the act to help balance his budget.
Reporters and Republicans also questioned how many would actually pay for their coverage and how many were forced onto the exchanges because their old plans were canceled.
Those are numbers the White House doesn’t yet have, Carney said.
More will continue to sign up in the coming days who were trying to sign up but could not because of a surge of last-minute interest, he noted.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, held little back.
“Despite the White House ‘victory lap,’ this law continues to harm the American people,” Steel said. “Every promise the President made has been broken: health care costs are rising, not falling. Americans are losing the doctors and plans that they like — especially seniors suffering under President Obama’s Medicare cuts. Small businesses are afraid to hire new workers, hobbling our economic growth. That’s why we must replace this fundamentally-flawed law with patient-centered solutions that will actually lower health care costs and help create jobs.”
So far, however, Republicans have yet to unify behind an alternative of their own.