By Mike Lillis - 04/03/14 06:00 AM EDT
Democrats on Capitol Hill are treading carefully in the wake of this week’s surprise enrollment success for President Obama’s healthcare reform law.
While lawmakers are hailing the news that 7.1 million people have gained insurance through ObamaCare exchanges ahead of the first enrollment deadline — a number exceeding the initial goal set by the administration — many are also eager to direct the focus away from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and concentrate instead on bread-and-butter economic issues ahead of November’s midterms.
House Democratic leaders emerged Wednesday from their weekly caucus meeting to trumpet an economic agenda that focuses on raising the minimum wage, extending jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and overhauling the nation’s immigration system. And while a handful of Senate Democrats staged a Tuesday press briefing to cheer Obama-Care enrollment, there were, notably, no vulnerable Democrats in attendance.
Their desire to shift the emphasis, even after a week of good press is, at least in part, a concession that the healthcare law remains a liability for Democrats, particularly in swing areas they’re hoping to pick up in the House and keep in the Senate.
And it’s a political liability some members readily acknowledge, even as they’re defending the law’s underlying policies and touting its benefits.
“When you consider that the ACA has been trashed for four years, and people have been led to believe there are really death panels, and you’re going to end up with rationed healthcare, a substantial portion of the American public still believes that stuff,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said Wednesday. “Our goal is to win the election.”
Cleaver said he’ll soon head to Arizona to campaign for an unnamed Democrat in a close race — and he’ll be avoiding the topic of ObamaCare.
“I’m not going out there talking about the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “I’m not … going to go to a district that’s just on the line — a possibility for us — and start damaging people. That’s crazy.”
Obama on Tuesday was quick to trumpet the new enrollment figures, which came at the end of an open enrollment period that was severely crippled by the botched rollout of the administration’s online marketplace. The president went after the critics for cheering for the law to fail.
“I don’t get it,” Obama said from the Rose Garden. “Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance? Why are they so mad about folks having health insurance?”
But even as the president was highlighting the success of his signature domestic achievement, Democratic leaders were shifting their message toward the economy.
“That’s the debate that the election will be about, jobs and the budget,” Pelosi said.
“We’re not running on healthcare, but we’re not running away from it,” she added.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel is also downplaying the significance of the enrollment success on November’s midterms, telling reporters Wednesday, “it’s too early to say whether the tide has turned” in favor of the law.
The New York Democrat argued that, while Republicans’ ACA repeal efforts would alienate independent voters, the Democrats’ central campaign message would revolve around the contrast between his party’s economic priorities and those outlined this week in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal.
“This,” Israel told reporters at the National Press Club, “will be the defining issue in the midterm elections.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said reaching the enrollment goal will help the Democrats defensively, while the Democrats’ economic priorities will provide the offense.
“That [reaching 7 million enrollees] was a redemptive moment for many [Democrats],” he said Wednesday. “And I think, as a consequence … many of us won’t have to run defending the healthcare law over and over again, and we can concentrate on other things.”
But at least one Democrat is hoping the Obama administration will minimize the public prominence of the ACA ahead of the elections, even when good news like the 7 million enrollments comes along.
“Frankly,” Cleaver said, “I hope the people in the White House don’t push that too far.”