As Republicans tore their party in two over how to fight Obamacare, Democrats lined up in lockstep behind the law—a big reason why they won this month’s shutdown showdown.
But now, with a victory all but in the bag, some Dems are suddenly losing their nerve.
Spooked by Obamacare’s botched rollout, a growing number of one-time Affordable Care Act supporters are getting cold feet—an old Democratic habit that some thought the party had banished. They’re calling for key parts of the law to be delayed—an echo of the demands that led the GOP to shut down the government. And they’re lining up to express outrage over the website problems that have blighted the launch of the law's insurance exchanges.
The freak-out hasn’t been confined to red-state Democrats looking to establish their conservative cred.
On MSNBC Thursday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a reliable supporter of the president, said the website fiasco might require delaying the law’s individual mandate, which imposes a fine on people who don’t get insurance. Uninsured Americans have until March 31st to enroll in the exchanges before they face a financial penalty.
“We have to consider delaying the mandate,” Blumenthal said. “There may be a need for delays if these kinds of problems continue.”
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is one step ahead of Blumenthal. He’s already working on a bill to delay the mandate for a year.
"Let's work through the problems,” Manchin said on Fox News Wednesday. “We've got a lot of problems, they have been identified. I think everybody has recognized them. Let's fix it.”
While Manchin has long criticized the individual mandate, he voted with his party against a Republican push to delay it during the debate over the shutdown. He wasn’t the only one. During the shutdown controversy, Democrats lined up behind the stategy of refusing to negotiate over Obamacare, insisting that Republicans re-open the government without significant changes to the law. That stance ultimately forced Republicans to cave.
But those days appear to be over. Over in the House, Rep. John Barrow, a conservative Democrat from Georgia, is leading the rush to the door.
“This is about providing some relief to the folks we represent who are facing serious uncertainty because they’re being forced to buy something that’s not ready,” Barrow said Wednesday in a speech on the House floor. “I urge my colleagues and the administration to delay the individual mandate. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the only practical thing to do.”
That’s not the only change that Democrats are pushing. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas—all up for re-election next year—want Obama to extend the open enrollment period beyond the current date of March 31, 2014.
“As website glitches persist, we are losing valuable time to educate and enroll people in insurance plans,” Shaheen wrote in a letter to Obama Tuesday. “I also fear that people that have tried, and failed, to enroll online may become frustrated and not return to the website to try again at a later date.”
Extending enrollment might genuinely help get more people into the exchanges, a crucial factor in making them work. But even good faith efforts to improve the law could play into the hands of Republicans hoping to sabotage it, by opening political space for more fundamental changes. After the administration delayed the mandate on businesses earlier this year, Republicans seized on the news to argue that the entire law was flawed.
Other Democrats are finding a different way to separate themselves from the law.
In recent days, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, and Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Rick Nolan of Minnesota all have called on Obama to fire the person responsible for the website problems.
“[H]e needs to, you know, man up, step up," Nolan said in a radio interview.
Those jumping off the Obamacare train are still by far the minority of their party.
Appearing on msnbc on Monday, Charlie Rangel downplayed the significance of the glitches, characterizing them as "like a pimple on an elephant’s backside.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi dismissed the idea of delaying the individual mandate. "I don't support that," she told reporters on Thursday. "There are glitches but there are solutions as well." And on Thursday's Morning Joe, Howard Dean went so far as to shift some of the blame for the launch issues onto the GOP, saying they purposely "threw as many monkey wrenches into the process as they could."
There’s evidence that some faint-hearted Democrtas may be over-reacting.
A Gallup poll released Wednesday found that despite the rollout fiasco, 45 percent of respondents approve of Obamacare, a slight uptick since August.