Dems on ObamaCare: Was it worth it?

Influential Democrats who have strongly defended Obama-Care for years are now publicly questioning whether the law was worth the political fallout.

Passage of the Affordable Care Act marked the start of a political unraveling for the Democratic Party, which lost huge majorities in Congress and control of a majority of state governorships in the last four and a half years.

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Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSenate Dems step up protests ahead of ObamaCare repeal vote Senate Dems plan floor protest ahead of ObamaCare repeal vote Dem senator: Don't bet against McConnell on ObamaCare repeal MORE (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said last week that ObamaCare was not worth the political cost. And he’s not alone.

Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinDistance education: Tumultuous today and yesterday Grassley challenger no stranger to defying odds Clinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream MORE (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, told The Hill that Democrats should have enacted a single-payer healthcare system or a public option. In retrospect, Harkin said, Democrats should have not passed the bill they did. While he says the ACA enacted some good reforms, he bemoans its daunting complexity.

Schumer’s and Harkin’s recent remarks are quite different than in prior years. After the Supreme Court upheld ObamaCare’s individual mandate, Harkin hailed the ruling as “great news for America’s families, businesses and our economy. The Affordable Care Act moves us forward where every person has affordable, quality healthcare in America.”

Schumer, meanwhile, in 2010 said, “I predict … by November those who voted for healthcare will find it an asset; those who voted against it will find it a liability.”

But the law has struggled to gain traction with the public and has been a boon to the GOP politically. In short, many Democrats are tired of waiting.

The public criticism of the law, the centerpiece of President Obama’s legacy, has ignited a debate within the Democratic Party.

Democrats are arguing among themselves about whether to focus on the poor, who are not reliable voters, or the middle class, who have started to turn to the Republican Party.

Schumer argued at a speech at the National Press Club that Democrats “blew the opportunity the American people gave them” by passing healthcare reform in 2009 and 2010 instead of working on economic legislation designed to help middle-class voters.

He estimates that uninsured Americans who were the primary beneficiaries of healthcare reform made up only about 5 percent of the electorate in 2010, when Republicans captured the House.

ObamaCare was a huge rallying cry of Republicans in the 2010 midterms, which helped them rack up support from white, middle-class voters. In 2014, ObamaCare was less front and center, though it certainly helped the GOP.

Harkin, who co-authored the law and is retiring at the end of this Congress, said, “We had the power to do it in a way that would have simplified healthcare, made it more efficient and made it less costly, and we didn’t do it, So I look back and say we should have either done it the correct way or not done anything at all.

“What we did is we muddled through and we got a system that is complex, convoluted, needs probably some corrections and still rewards the insurance companies extensively,” he added.

These critiques have spawned a sharp debate among Democrats.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), another architect of ObamaCare, hailed the law as a historic achievement and strongly disagreed with Schumer and Harkin.

“Healthcare has been a subject of debate in this country for a hundred years, and when you had the opportunity to rationalize the system and to get people covered who were never covered, you have to take that opportunity,” he said.

Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this cycle, said he agrees with Schumer that the party should focus on the middle class.

“But I do not believe that we should relitigate the political strategies in passing the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

Miller, who is close to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said people approach him “every day” to thank him and relate their personal stories of gaining access to healthcare.

He noted that reform-minded presidents throughout the 20th century — including Bill ClintonBill ClintonJared Kushner hires Abbe Lowell for legal team Overnight Energy: Trump White House kicks off 'Energy Week' Bill Clinton: 'The water is going to keep rising’ whether US stays in Paris or not MORE, Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt — have called for expanding access to healthcare.

“Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t do it, when he had the balls of a gorilla,” said Miller, who noted that Democrats also failed to reform healthcare when they had 61 seats in the Senate and controlled the White House in 1977 and 1978.

Schumer’s analysis elicited a pointed response from Pelosi.

“We come here to do a job, not keep a job. There are more than 14 million reasons why that’s wrong,” Pelosi said in a written statement, referring to people who gained health coverage through the law.

Some Democratic lawmakers sympathize with both arguments.

“I certainly agree with the sentiment that the timing was tough due to the economic crisis that was gripping our country. On the other hand, I think if you were to ask the president, I would assume the president would counter, ‘I did it when we could,’ ” said Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillMcCaskill attended reception at Russian ambassador's residence in 2015 Senators question need for HHS cyber office Overnight Cybersecurity: Obama DHS chief defends Russian hack response | Trump huddles on grid security | Lawmakers warned about cyber threat to election systems MORE (D-Mo.).

Sen. Jon TesterJon TesterOvernight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Trump's 'regulatory czar' advances in Senate Gianforte causes stir after becoming newest House member MORE (Mont.), the incoming chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee , applauded Schumer’s message to the party that it needs to focus more on the needs of middle-class voters.

“I think, moving forward, he’s spot on,” he said. “I think we need to focus on the middle class, the economy, and opportunity and prosperity.”

But Miller said it’s wishful thinking to believe Democrats could have passed another economic stimulus package in 2009 had they skipped pushing healthcare reform.

“The idea that you could have traded that for stimulus? Remember, we had a stimulus package. They cut the stimulus in half. They put half of it in tax cuts which lowered the stimulus amount,” he said of leadership negotiations with Republicans and Democratic centrists.

Harkin believes Democrats could have created a government-provided insurance option by working harder to win over three centrists: former Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). 

“The House passed [a] public option. We had the votes in the Senate for cloture,” he said.

“There were only three Democrats that held out and we could have had those three,” he added. “We could have had all three of them if the president would have been just willing to do some political things, but he wouldn’t do it.”

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseGraham gets frustrated in public ‘unmasking’ debate Senate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference Judiciary Committee to continue Russia probe after Mueller meeting MORE (D-R.I.), who backed legislation to create a public option, questioned whether Obama could have moved Democratic centrists.

“I never saw that opening and I’m a keen supporter of the public option and wish we had it, but I just didn’t see the votes,” he said.

But Whitehouse, along with many Democrats, agrees that bending over backward to assuage the political concerns of Lieberman, Nelson, Lincoln and other moderates didn’t pan out.

“I don’t think it would have been any more politically fraught if it had passed,” he said of the public option.

Tester voiced a similar view.

“We certainly wouldn’t have gotten any more criticism,” he said.

Other Democrats say it’s too painful to play the what-if game.

“The law is the law, and whatever Schumer or anybody else thinks about what we should have done, we did it and it’s done. We’ve got to move on,” said Rep. Peter WelchPeter WelchA bipartisan consensus against 'big pharma' is growing in Congress Dems push leaders to talk less about Russia House Dems slam Trump's 'betrayal' on drug pricing MORE (D-Vt.).