By Alexander Bolton - 10/31/13 03:50 PM EDT
Senate Democrats vented their frustrations over the faulty rollout of the Affordable Care Act in a meeting Thursday with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and other senior officials.
“There’s a lot of frustration, everywhere,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the meeting.
“He gave us the impression that he’s taking charge of the different elements and cracking the whip. He said to let him know if we had concerns,” said a Democratic senator who attended the meeting.
Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Jeffrey Zients, whom President Obama has tapped to troubleshoot the bugs afflicting HealthCare.gov, also attended the meeting.
Democratic senators facing reelection in 2014 were some of the most vocal critics.
One lawmaker described Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) as visibly “agitated.”
Shaheen demanded to know why the rollout of HealthCare.gov had become so riddled with problems.
A Democratic aide said Shaheen asked the administration officials for a contingency plan in case technical problems are not fixed by Nov. 30. They replied they are working on one but did not have a plan to share as of Thursday.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has spent more of his career in the private sector than in government, also weighed in forcefully, according to the source.
"I am not happy with the website. That is a pretty common thought that we all feel," Warner later told reporters.
“I think we ought to give them the time to make the improvements. But we need to see the improvements. We need to make this a much easier, consumer-friendly process," he added.
Some lawmakers complained the administration has not done a good job of communicating what it’s doing to overhaul HealthCare.gov.
“[People] are unhappy. We want to see improvements. They’ve got to let people know what they’re doing, as they’re doing it,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.
Brown said too many people still don’t know how to sign up for health plans through the insurance exchanges.
“This is a situation where too many people don’t know about the website, don’t know how to apply,” he said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told colleagues the White House and Democratic lawmakers need to do a better job telling positive stories about the Affordable Care Act.
She lamented that insurance companies have had it “both ways” by blaming ObamaCare for rising premiums and reaping millions of new customers because of the law, according to a lawmaker who attended the meeting.
Administration officials told Democratic lawmakers that they would keep the website running while they tried to fix the problems.
“They have evolved a method of proceeding, which is to keep the site up, which they believe is most effective in terms of getting the problems ironed out — as opposed to shutting it down,” Feinstein said. “We’ll see.”
McDonough put a positive spin on the heated meeting after exiting the Mansfield Room.
“I think we had a really good discussion,” he said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said many of her colleagues "are anxious for questions to be answered aggressively and effectively," but added they are already seeing improvements in the website and other parts of the rollout.
"I think time will fix a huge number of these problems, as it did on every major program like this that has ever rolled out," she said, referencing both Medicare and Medicare Part D.
But other Democrats are skeptical about promises from the administration about how long it will take to fix the enrollment process.
"They hope to have good things to tell us as they get those fixes in place," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said. "I don't think there is confidence by anybody in the room. This is more of a 'show me' moment. We were all confident the system was going to be up and operating Oct. 1 and now we are not confident until it's real."
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats' messaging guru, admitted it was a rocky meeting but emphasized that lawmakers felt their concerns were addressed.
"It was a tough meeting, there were a lot of hard questions," he said. "A lot of concerns were allayed."
Lawmakers discussed a proposal by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to let people keep their health plans, even if they fall short of the requirements set under the new law, according to another lawmaker in the room.
Landrieu expects several Democrats to co-sponsor the proposal.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told reporters that he plans to sign onto Landrieu’s bill.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who faces a tough race next year, said he is in the midst of reviewing a draft.
— Bernie Becker and Erik Wasson contributed.
Updated at 4:25 p.m.