Low enrollment numbers up pressure on Obama administration

BY Terence Burlij  November 14, 2013 at 9:20 AM EDT


House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the rollout of the Affordable Care Act “a monumental mistake” Wednesday. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s announcement Wednesday that 106,185 Americans signed up for health insurance coverage through the new federal and state exchanges in their first month of operation has emboldened congressional Republicans and raised the level of concern among some of President Barack Obama’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. The Morning Line

The enrollment number fell far short of the target of nearly 500,000 that the administration had projected for the first month. Fewer than 27,000 people enrolled through the federal exchange, which has been plagued by technical glitches. There were more than 79,000 people who signed up through state-based exchanges.

The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin breaks down “the good, the bad and the plain ugly” in the numbers.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that the administration expects “these numbers to rise,” but as problems with the rollout persist, public opinion toward the president and his signature domestic achievement continue to fall.

A Gallup poll released Thursday revealed that Americans’ views of the healthcare law have soured in recent weeks, with 40 percent of respondents saying they approve of the program, while 55 percent say they disapprove. In late October Gallup found 44 percent of Americans supported the law with 47 percent opposed.

The president’s job performance also appears to be on shaky ground. A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this week showed just 39 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Obama’s handling of the office, compared with 54 percent who said they disapproved. On health care, respondents were split even more sharply, with 36 percent approving and 60 percent disapproving of his handling of the issue.

Heading into the 2014 midterm election cycle, the rocky rollout of the program has Democratic lawmakers anxious about the potential political fallout, while Republicans have gone on the offensive, looking to rebound politically from the drubbing the party took in the polls following the partial government shutdown last month.

House Speaker John Boehner Wednesday called on the president to support a Republican plan set for a vote Friday that is aimed at allowing Americans who have had their policies cancelled to be able to keep them. “These numbers underscore the urgent need for President Obama to allow people to keep the plans they have and like,” Boehner said in a statement.

“Above all, this report is a symbol of the failure of the president’s health care law. It is a rolling calamity that must be scrapped,” the speaker added.

Republicans also blasted the troubled launch of the HealthCare.gov site during a House hearing Wednesday.

“This wasn’t a small mistake. This wasn’t a scaling mistake. This was a monumental mistake to go live and effectively explode on the launchpad,” declared House Oversight chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

There also were signs of growing Democratic interest in allowing Americans who have had their plans cancelled to be able to keep them. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley announced his support Wednesday for a proposal introduced by fellow Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana that seeks to let people stay on their current policies.

Politico’s Jonathan Allen, Seung Min Kim and Jennifer Haberkorn report that House Democrats excoriated administration officials during a closed-door meeting Wednesday:

Collectively, the House Democrats issued a stern warning to the administration officials: Fix it or face a full-scale rebellion.

White House aides contend that there’s little to worry about. For all the clamor, they argue, Democrats on Capitol Hill haven’t yet joined “repeal and replace” Republicans in trying to dismantle the law. The White House understands the frustration, they say, but notes that Democrats are invested in making the law work and aren’t walking away from it.

Stu Rothenberg writes that the healthcare woes could be a drag on Democrats running for re-election next year, especially in the Senate:

Democratic vulnerability in the House is relatively modest, since so few House seats are competitive. But Democrats will have a hard time gaining any House seats if the president’s standing is hovering around the 40 percent mark, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will have to start worrying about net losses, not trying to maximize gains.

Over in the Senate, a damaged Obama could easily cost his party the Senate. It’s as simple as that. With an Obama job rating sitting around the 40 percent mark, it’s difficult to imagine Republican seats in Kentucky or Georgia falling to Democrats, and more difficult to imagine Democratic senators in Alaska, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas surviving. Even Democratic nominees in Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire could see their prospects change from good to uncertain.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that the president’s chief concern was getting the problems fixed. “The president … looks at this as a matter of policy first and politics second,” Carney said.

With time and patience running out to get the policy right, Carney said the president would lay out a solution to the problem of the cancelled plans “sooner rather than later.”

For the president and worried Democrats on the Hill, the sooner the better.

Watch Kwame Holman’s report on Wednesday’s health care hearing here or below:


You can also see the latest in our series of voices affected by the Affordable Care Act. Wednesday’s profile looked at Martha Monsson, a Colorado woman who was diagnosed with cancer and supports the law’s guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

IMMIGRATION STALLED

Despite the waves of momentum earlier this year for immigration reform from Congress, a vote in the House of Representatives won’t happen before the end of the year — or possibly ever.

“We have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill,” House Majority Leader John Boehner told reporters Wednesday about the prospects of passing a comprehensive plan in the House. Instead, the Republican-led body could look at piecemeal reform proposals.

But even that prospect looks grim for 2013. Only a handful of days remain on the congressional calendar before the new year. That means there’s not enough time to vote, a situation confirmed by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy last week. And any House movement on a bill now could distract from the political victory lap Republicans have been taking over the HealthCare.gov failures.

Still, religious leaders on the right have asked Boehner to move forward with legislation. They represent a Republican divide between many social conservatives and the tea party, pushing for no action at all, on this issue. For instance, Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan has called the current immigration system “a stain on the nation’s soul,” and evangelical leaders met with President Obama in the Oval Office Thursday to discuss reform.

Boehner’s stance was less forceful when two immigrant teenagers cornered him with a video camera during his breakfast at a Capitol Hill spot Wednesday.

“”I’m trying to find a way to get this thing done,” Boehner told them. “It’s, as you know, not easy. It’s not going to be an easy path forward, but I’ve made it clear since the day after the election that it’s time to get this done.”

Fusion TV quoted a Boehner spokesperson illuminating the fine line between the speaker’s Wednesday comments:

“Not going to conference over one huge bill doesn’t mean we are not going to work on immigration. The Speaker has been clear since the [beginning], we have a broken immigration system and we are going to do it in a step-by-step manner.”

Naturally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — who helped secure the Senate passage of a bipartisan policy that would include a pathway to citizenship for some of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country — said he was “stunned.”

“How could anybody in good conscience tell one group he’s trying to do immigration reform, and a few minutes later, say ‘I’m not going to do anything about a conference?’” Reid said Wednesday.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and Senate bill co-sponsor, echoed Reid in a statement:

“I believe the House will come to its senses and realize that we have to fix our immigration system in a bipartisan way. You cannot pass any bill with just Democratic or Republican votes. They cannot possibly end this Congress only having passed legislation to deport all of the Dream Act kids.”

For the White House, the time is ripe for another round of campaigning on the issue. Vice President Joe Biden plans to deliver a speech Thursday asking for reform.

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NEWSHOUR: #notjustaTVshow

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  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Editor’s note: This report originally stated that the number of enrollments for the new health care marketplaces was 106,856. The number, according to the administration’s report released Wednesday, is 106,185.