By Alexander Bolton and Bob Cusack - 12/18/13 01:19 PM EST
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) thinks the healthcare law will ultimately help Senate Democrats in 2014 even though some incumbents fear a backlash at the polls.
Reid said feedback to the Obama administration from Democratic senators has helped improve the federal enrollment site HealthCare.gov since its disastrous launch in October.
“It’s gotten significantly better, but it was significantly bad so it has a long way to go,” he said Wednesday during an interview with The Hill in his Capitol office overlooking the National Mall.
The Senate leader noted that Phil Schiliro, a senior White House adviser coordinating the implementation of the new healthcare law, met earlier Wednesday with Democratic senators who are facing tough reelection races next year.
“Phil Schiliro ... came up today and had a good meeting with my 2014ers. The discussions were led by [Senate Majority Whip Dick] Durbin [(D-Ill.)] and it was an extremely positive, good meeting,” Reid said.
“That’s what we’ve needed from the White House for some time now, is someone to be able to reach out to,” he said.
Reid said White House chief of staff Denis McDonough is a “good person but he’s overwhelmed with work, and he did not have the capacity, which is time, to do the hands-on work that is necessary with my senators.”
He said senior White House staffers weren’t responsive at the height of the public uproar over the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
"There was a period of time there where there were no questions that were answered because they were so overwhelmed with trying to get that program fixed," he said.
Reid’s biggest political job next year will be protecting the Senate majority and the vulnerable Democratic incumbents in states like Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.
“The only thing I want from the White House in 2014 is for them to be available to my senators who are running for reelection,” Reid said.
He said he doesn’t worry that President Obama’s approval ratings, which have hit the low 40s, will affect Senate races next year, even though Republicans will do everything they can to tie Democratic candidates to the president’s promise that people would be able to keep their health plans if they like them.
"His numbers are going to go up. It's a question of what's gone on with this healthcare thing. It will get better," he said. "I've seen this over the years. You'd be surprised what three months' difference makes."
His hallmark as leader has been to strictly limit votes on politically charged amendments, which Republicans offer to collect political ammo for Senate campaigns.
Reid will likely continue that approach next year by teeing up votes on legislation designed to highlight differences between Democrats and Republicans on the economy.
He said he would make combating income inequality his top priority when Congress returns from the Christmas recess, starting with legislation to renew federal unemployment benefits.
“We’re going to come back and we’re going to do unemployment. I’m pleased that as I understand it that [Sen.] Jack Reed [D-R.I.] and [Sen.] Dean Heller [R-Nev.] are going to be the people who are going to move the bill forward,” he said. “Then we’re going to do flood insurance. Then we’re going to do minimum wage.
“Those things are not going to take care of the income inequality although it would help significantly,” he said. “And then we have process important nominations.”
Democrats expect Obama to make jobs and the economy his chief focus in the State of the Union address on Jan. 28.
Reid will have some work to do to unify the Senate Democratic Caucus on raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, a proposal championed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who is a top GOP target next year, does not support the legislation, and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) prefers the president's initial proposal to raise it to $9 an hour.
Looking forward to the next debt-ceiling fight, Reid said he does not expect Republicans will force another standoff after October’s 16-day government shutdown pushed the GOP’s approval rating to a historic low.
He also expressed confidence that Republicans will not be able to capture the six seats they need to regain control of the Senate.
He thinks Democrats have a good chance of picking up the Senate-held seat in Georgia, where Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), is running.
Reid is also heartened by the addition of former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta to Obama’s inner circle of advisers.
“John Podesta is going to bring some political savvy to the White House, and I think that's so important,” he told Bloomberg Television last week.