Vulnerable House Democrats laid low Thursday after voting to delay two key ObamaCare mandates over a White House veto threat.
Measures to delay the healthcare law's employer and individual mandates passed with 35 and 22 Democratic votes, respectively, just after a combative White House blasted the moves as unnecessary and harmful to consumers.
The next day, many of the defectors failed to respond to requests for comment on the votes. Some avoided reporters, while several others declined to speak through spokesmen.
The divisions over healthcare strongly contrasted with a recent pattern of unified votes by House Democrats.
Not a single Democrat voted last week for a stripped down Republican farm bill, and only four voted in May to tie student loan rates to the financial markets.
But ObamaCare's employer and individual mandates proved a different story, highlighting anxiety over the divisive law as lawmakers from swing districts await 2014.
Several Democrats who voted for both delays, including Reps. Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Ron Barber (Ariz.), are top GOP targets for the midterm elections.
Another two defectors, Reps. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), are favored to win Senate seats next fall.
Peters voted with the GOP both times on Wednesday, while Braley only voted to delay the employer mandate. Both backed the Affordable Care Act at its inception.
All of these members are already the focus of Republican attacks related to healthcare reform.
The GOP redoubled its messaging against ObamaCare on July 2, when the Treasury Department announced that it would delay until 2015 the requirement that larger employers offer healthcare coverage.
The White House characterized the delay as a show of flexibility toward business. But the GOP smelled blood and said the decision offered proof that ObamaCare isn't viable.
Galvanized Republicans soon argued that the Obama White House favors corporate interests over average people, since individuals will still be required to carry health insurance starting next year.
This populist rhetoric came through in a handful of interviews with Democrats who supported the delays.
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), who was elected in 2012, said deferring the individual mandate would "make sense" because many lower-income people will still struggle to afford coverage next year.
"The Affordable Care Act is not perfect," he said. "I always thought that it could be improved."
The trouble with delaying the individual mandate is that it would cause premiums to spike in the individual and small-group health insurance markets.
Under healthcare reform, insurance companies will be barred from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, who make for more expensive patients.
These protections for the sick are possible because of the individual mandate, which will bring millions of younger, healthier people into the market, lowering the price of insurance premiums.
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) voted with Republicans to delay the employer mandate and against them to keep the individual mandate in place for next year.
He said his decision sprang from a concern for healthcare costs.
"For the health insurance exchanges to work, we've got to get as many young, healthy people in there as possible," said Bera, a physician.
"Delaying the business component doesn't really undermine the exchanges, but in California, [delaying] the individual mandate probably would."
Murphy said he doesn't worry about an initial rise in premiums because the costs will eventually go down.
"What counts is us getting it right in the long term," he said. "I don't worry about a spike. I think the long term is what matters."
The White House puts its allies in a difficult position on Tuesday by threatening to veto both bills, even the measure to enact the administration's own employer delay.
White House spokesman Jay Carney painted the legislation as an attempt to undermine the healthcare law and suggested that voting for either bill would hand a victory to Republicans.
“There are few things more cynical than the House Republicans, who have made it their mission in life to repeal the Affordable Care Act and deny the American people the benefits that they would receive,” Carney told a press conference.
Both Murphy and Bera were elected in hard-fought 2012 races, and both have expressed concerns about ObamaCare while voicing support for the law in general.
In all, 14 Democratic freshmen voted for both delays, including Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Elizabeth Esty (Conn.) and Pete Gallego (Texas).
Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.), who won back his seat in 2012, repeated a refrain common to the group — that the Affordable Care Act needs some adjustment.
"I have been clear about my support for making changes to the law," Maffei said in a statement, citing his bill to repeal ObamaCare's medical device tax.
"If businesses are given additional time by the administration, middle class families deserve that same opportunity," he added.
— This story was updated at 10:42 a.m.