Health vote puts Dems in pickle

Anne Wernikoff

The House will vote Friday on a GOP bill allowing insurance companies to continue offering consumers their existing, limited plans under President Obama's healthcare law.

Republican leaders hope the bill, which is expected to pass easily on a largely partisan vote, will raise pressure on the White House over the botched rollout of ObamaCare.

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The chief drama on Friday is finding out how many Democrats will back the bill.

The vote puts Democratic leaders in a pickle, caught between the desire to maintain party unity and the propensity to allow threatened rank-and-file members to vote their districts with reelection in mind. 

Highlighting the dilemma, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, has not said whether he'll whip the Democrats against the GOP measure.

At least five House Democrats – Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Patrick Murphy (Fla.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Collin Peterson (Minn.) – are on record in support of the Republican bill, while many others said Thursday that they remain undecided.

While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders have had great success uniting the caucus on high-profile votes this year, the blanket has frayed this month as the problems dogging ObamaCare's rollout have mounted and a number of Democrats have threatened to cross the aisle in support of the GOP measure.

Democrats are preparing legislation to give their members an alternative to voting for the GOP bill sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). His bill would empower insurance companies to continue to sell plans available on the market now, regardless of whether they meet the minimum coverage requirements established by ObamaCare.

Democrats on Thursday declined to reveal the details of that measure, which is sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). But Pelosi said it will be “complementary to what the president has done.”

Obama’s proposal, which he said could be done through administration action, would extend the controversial insurance plans only for those currently in them, and only for one year. It also puts the onus on insurers, who would have to choose on their own to offer the plans to the millions of people who have been told their current insurance policies have been, or will be, canceled because they don't meet the law's basic coverage requirements.

Obama on Thursday put the blame for the rollout problems squarely on his own shoulders – a move aimed at least in part to mitigate the political fallout showering down on congressional Democrats who also championed the law.

Several Democrats applauded the gesture, but frustration with the White House remained evident.

“It's been on him all along and look where we are,” Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said.

Still, a number of Democrats said Obama's move takes the pressure off of party members to support the Upton bill. They predicted there would at least be fewer Democratic defections as a result.

“Had the White House not done this, there was a real risk here – more than a risk – of significant Democratic defections,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

The Upton measure will see some GOP defections, too.

From the right, there have been concerns that the Republican bill would provide a fix to ObamaCare instead of repealing it, as conservatives prefer. Erick Erickson, the influential editor of the RedState blog, panned the GOP proposal this week for that very reason. 

“Obamacare is not fixable,” Erickson wrote Wednesday. “The only solution is to fully repeal it.”

Yet that sentiment has so far not reverberated much with House Republicans. While Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) has announced her opposition to the bill, most conservatives appear ready to back it.

“The danger to these millions of people in the small group market and individual policyholders …  the danger of leaving them in a gap situation – that's why this bill is so very, very important,” Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said Thursday. 

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) said one reason Democrats wanted their own alternative on which to vote stemmed from a distrust of anything that Republicans put forward on the healthcare law.

“When you have a group of folks who continuously try to destroy the legislation, you become very suspicious when you see a ‘fix.’ You wonder what kind of a fix it could be,” Serrano said.

Peterson, for one, said he's not taking any chances during Friday's vote.

"I'm for Upton, I'm for Miller and I'm for Obama – I'm supporting all of them," he said. 

"Maybe one of them will work."

Russell Berman and Jonathan Easley contributed.