By Jason Millman and Alexander Bolton - 01/06/11 12:53 AM EST
Democrats who are nervous about reelection are increasingly ready to consider scrapping the new healthcare law’s provision that forces people to buy health insurance or pay a fine.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of President Obama’s closest allies in the Senate, on Wednesday said she would consider scrapping the controversial mandate in favor of a “viable” alternative.
McCaskill is facing a tough reelection race in 2012. Three-quarters of Missouri voters opposed the individual mandate in a referendum during the August primary, so her support for the healthcare legislation could become a sticking point for her campaign.
Vulnerable Democratic incumbents are bracing for a bruising debate on healthcare after the House votes on a total repeal of the law next week.
The House repeal bill is expected to pass easily and might pick up some Democratic votes, shifting the political spotlight to centrists in the upper chamber.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said over the weekend that if House Republicans pass repeal legislation by a large vote, “it will put enormous pressure on the Senate” to follow suit.
Even if a full repeal stalls in the upper chamber, House Republicans will send over piecemeal repeals of controversial provisions, including the mandate.
Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), a vulnerable Democrat facing reelection in a state where Obama remains deeply unpopular, has also criticized the mandate.
Manchin told The Hill on Wednesday that the rule puts too many people in an “onerous position.”
Manchin said during his 2010 campaign that he wanted to repeal the mandate, or the entire healthcare law if the mandate could not be eliminated. Manchin also opposes the law’s so-called 1099 provision, which requires businesses to report all supply purchases worth $600 or more from a single vendor.
Manchin faces voters again in two years because he was elected to serve out the remaining term of the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
McCaskill and Manchin represent conservative-leaning states, but liberals have also raised criticisms of the mandate.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean predicted Wednesday morning that Congress or the courts would eventually strike down the rule.
“I think that will be gone,” Dean said on MSNBC. “People don’t like it, and I don’t think it’s essential to the program at all. It’s great for the insurance companies.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), another Democrat who could have a neck-and-neck race in 2012, declined to defend the individual mandate.
“I’m going to study it,” he said.
Nelson, however, said he would not support a broad repeal of the healthcare bill because it would strip seniors of benefits, such as discounts on prescription drugs.
“Now seniors get 50 percent of their drugs discounted that otherwise would fall in the doughnut hole,” Nelson said in reference to the gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage.
Many Senate Democrats agree the 1099 provision, which has sparked a revolt among small businesses, will have to go. White House officials also agree that it needs to be changed.
Proposals to scrap the 1099 provision from Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) both failed to garner enough support in the lame-duck session.
The Baucus proposal would have repealed the 1099 requirement without paying for it, adding $19 billion to the deficit. The Johanns plan would have paid for a repeal with unspent and unobligated federal dollars to be identified by the Office of Management and Budget.
Freshman Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who took the oath of office Wednesday, said he plans to review the healthcare reform law and consider fixes.
“I think there are a number of ways to improve the bill and I’ll be working with senators, both Republicans and Democrats, on specific measures to do that. But I’m not willing to comment right now,” Blumenthal said.
He declined to comment specifically on the individual mandate or the 1099 requirement.
Blumenthal said he was open to empowering the federal government to negotiate the price of prescription drugs on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries and others covered by federally subsidized insurance.
Obama promised drug companies in 2009 that his administration would not insist on collective bargaining for Medicare patients in return for their support of reform legislation.
Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), another Democrat who could have an uphill run for reelection in 2012, said he would not comment on changing the healthcare law until he saw specific proposals.
He defended the individual mandate and the broader law for keeping healthcare premiums affordable and reducing the deficit.
“Taking the mandate out increases premiums 27 percent; that’s not a good idea, that’s a bad idea,” Conrad said. “Repealing the bill completely is a bad idea. That would dramatically increase the deficit and the debt.”
Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said repealing healthcare reform would increase the deficit “by more than $1 trillion over the next 20 years.”
Senate Democratic leaders have unleashed a barrage of attacks against Republicans in recent days in anticipation of renewed debate over healthcare reform.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called on Republican lawmakers who oppose the healthcare reform law to give up federal health benefits for themselves and their families.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has charged that Republicans would force seniors to pay higher prices for prescription drugs.
“On top of that, Republicans think insurance companies should be allowed to once again drop your coverage when you get sick, and go back to classifying breast cancer and domestic violence as pre-existing conditions,” Reid said in a statement Monday.