GOP on ObamaCare offense

Greg Nash

House Republicans hope to keep the White House on the defensive over ObamaCare this week with a vote on legislation allowing people to keep their existing health plans.

The GOP has scheduled five healthcare-related hearings over the next three days, each of which is designed to keep the administration on its back foot.

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The hearings include two panels focused on the botched rollout HealthCare.gov, as well as a Homeland Security Committee examination of the security of users’ personal data.

The Small Business Committee will look at self-insurance, while the Education and the Workforce Committee will discuss ObamaCare’s effect on schools, colleges and universities. 

“Hearings always make the administration look like they’re on the defensive,” Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said.

The floor vote on insurance plans is designed to embarrass President Obama by highlighting his promise that people could keep their existing plans under ObamaCare. Republicans also hope to expose divisions among Democrats, something that could help the GOP in next year’s midterm elections.

Obama apologized last week to Americans who have lost their current plans, a move that seemed to signal White House awareness of the growing anger and mistrust over the healthcare law.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that night announced the House vote, which is set to take place Friday.

“If the president is sincerely sorry that he misled the American people, the very least he can do is support this bipartisan effort,” Boehner said last week. “Otherwise, this apology doesn’t amount to anything.”

Republicans have seized on the healthcare law to save their own political skins after the GOP’s approval rating bottomed out during the government shutdown.

They also hope political fallout from ObamaCare will further stall Obama’s second-term agenda, which already faced significant headwinds.

“Each time there is a new problematic story, it throws the conversation to the limits of the [Affordable Care Act] and gives opponents moments to rally,” Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer said.

Democratic strategist James Carville on Monday highlighted Democratic anxiety over the changing fortunes in Washington, telling MSNBC that there’s “some real, deep fundamental problems with this president.”

At the same time, Carville, who is a columnist for The Hill, said it remains too early to write off Obama’s second term, saying critics should “stop putting the nails in the coffin.”

Besides the House vote this week on the insurance plans, the White House is bracing for the release of the first round of ObamaCare enrollment figures. One report on Monday suggested fewer than 50,000 people have enrolled through federal exchanges so far.

The problematic ObamaCare website isn’t fixed yet either, and HealthCare.gov czar Jeffrey Zients on Friday told reporters it was a “long way from where it needs to be.”

Political strategists and observers said Obama’s apology, and Zients’s lowering of expectations for the website, could help them move through the ObamaCare storm. Both suggest the administration has moved from denial to acceptance of the political dilemma it faces.

“They shouldn’t believe there’s a way to navigate this week gracefully,” Jillson said. “But their salvation, if it comes, is in the improvement of the website. If they manage to get that fixed, then I think that they’ll be able to recoup some momentum on the ObamaCare program.”

A Gallup poll released last week showed the president’s approval rating at 39 percent, its lowest point in two years. A George Washington University Battleground Poll showing congressional Democrats with only a 3-point generic ballot lead suggests that the advantage earned during the shutdown could be evaporating with the persistent ObamaCare woes.

Those numbers have Democrats on Capitol Hill worried about their chances for holding the Senate and winning a House majority in 2014. On Monday, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) began circulating a letter to her colleagues asking for the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general for the Health and Human Services Department to launch full-scale investigations into the implementation of ObamaCare.

Controversy over the rollout has also demanded a majority of the media’s attention, at a time that the president is hoping to move forward on efforts to frame the upcoming budget battle and his push for immigration reform.

Last week, Obama held a meeting with top corporate executives to tout the Senate immigration bill and gave a speech on infrastructure at the Port of New Orleans. Neither event gained political traction.

“The [healthcare] story is sucking most of the oxygen out of the domestic agenda and forcing the president to use all his energy on this at the expense of other issues,” Zelizer said. “Republicans have revived their spirits after feeling politically defeated following the budget deal.”

Anxiety over the effort to repair the healthcare law could explain why Democrats have so forcefully fought the subpoena of U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). The White House initially rejected Issa’s request for Park to testify, saying he would prefer to do so after finishing work on fixing the ObamaCare website.

That prompted Issa to compel Park’s attendance at Wednesday’s hearing. Since then, former Obama administration colleagues of Park have launched a website protesting the subpoena. On Monday, the committee’s ranking member, Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) sent Issa a letter asking him to withdraw the subpoena.