By Elise Viebeck - 11/13/13 06:00 AM EST
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) will take his turn at hammering the rollout of ObamaCare on Wednesday when his panel hears testimony from five administration witnesses.
The hearing will mark the culmination of a strategic assault on President Obama’s healthcare plan by congressional Republicans.
It follows a series of tactical document leaks from Issa that have created mini-firestorms for the White House and infuriated the Republican lawmaker’s critics, who accuse him of acting in bad faith over the last month.
In one case, Democrats disputed Issa’s claim that the White House ordered federal health officials to disable the “anonymous shopper” feature on HealthCare.gov over fears that higher premiums would turn applicants away.
This claim was refuted in interviews with administration officials, Democrats on the Oversight panel said in a memo.
The California Republican tends to rely on releasing a slow drip of information, often in the form of redacted documents or partial transcripts, to argue incompetence or political interference on the part of the Obama administration.
His previous investigations have become hot topics in the conservative media but gained less traction in the mainstream press in the absence of details that would fully confirm Issa’s case.
Critics accuse Issa of framing his findings in a way that misleads the media. But analysts see a crucial difference in how he has handled the issue of Obama-Care’s rollout and how he’s benefited from the wider narrative of problems with HealthCare.gov.
“Instead of coming out like Rambo, he’s realized that he can control the narrative, put Democrats on the defensive and still maintain the attention spans of the television networks,” said GOP political strategist Ford O’Connell.
“He’s learned to become a storyteller instead of a flamethrower. … If you can talk people through these issues, you can keep the story alive.”
Wednesday’s hearing comes during a critical week for the Obama administration. After a brief reprieve while the House was in recess, the White House is again under siege amid heightening pressure to modify unpopular pieces of ObamaCare.
Issa’s hearing will be Congress’s sixth since Oct. 1, when the ObamaCare enrollment website launched, but the first that is expected to focus in depth on efforts to repair HealthCare.gov.
The administration is also preparing to release its first official set of enrollment numbers from the new exchanges, another likely topic of discussion.
Estimates that emerged this week suggest that the exchanges failed to meet their enrollment targets during the month of October.
One piece of brighter news came when New York state announced that it had enrolled 50,000 people so far, though it’s unclear how many of those signups were for Medicaid.
Issa’s hearing will present lawmakers with their first opportunity to grill several technical experts within the administration about what went wrong with the enrollment website.
The expected appearance of one of those experts — U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park — tops off a major fight between Issa and Democrats from both the Oversight Committee and at the White House.
Park is scheduled to appear before the panel after a back-and-forth that ultimately led Issa to subpoena him.
The White House had argued that Park was too busy helping the HealthCare.gov repair effort and would happily testify in December.
Democrats continued to lash out at the subpoena this week, arguing it was unnecessary and perhaps an attempt to thwart the fixes at HealthCare.gov.
“Unfortunately, Chairman Issa is conducting this investigation of the Affordable Care Act in the same irresponsible and reckless way he has conducted previous investigations,” Oversight Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said.
“He has leaked incomplete, cherry-picked transcript excerpts in an attempt to further his pre-determined political narrative, and he has launched baseless and inflammatory allegations with no evidence to back them up.”
Republicans argue that Park’s appearance is appropriate given his expertise on the federal enrollment site and that Issa’s subpoena is appropriate given his charge of overseeing the executive branch.
Park, a former healthcare tech entrepreneur, was not involved in the construction of HealthCare.gov, but he helped build a precursor during his tenure at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The subpoena was Issa’s third on ObamaCare since Oct. 1 and was welcomed by conservative supporters of the chairman as a sign of his commitment to hammering the administration.