By Elise Viebeck - 10/24/13 12:15 AM EDT
The White House is delaying the deadline to buy health insurance by six weeks amid growing House Democratic concerns that the ObamaCare enrollment site’s botched rollout will prevent them from winning the House in 2014.
Congressional Democrats believe they have a real opportunity to bump Republicans from power because of the government shutdown, which dealt a serious blow to GOP poll numbers.
Dysfunction at HealthCare.gov has “provided cannon fodder for the opposition,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“The problems could have an effect if not clipped and clipped early,” he said.
“We’ve been through 2010, so we know that this is not good,” one high-ranking Democrat said, referring to the party’s loss of House control three years ago after ObamaCare was signed into law.
The change of the requirement for when people must buy insurance could give the administration more time to fix some of the problems with HealthCare.gov.
ObamaCare requires people to have health insurance by March 31, 2014. To guarantee the coverage, people must begin the process of applying for insurance no later than Feb. 15.
Under the change, people who have signed up for insurance by the end of March will not face a penalty even if they do not actually have the insurance.
White House officials on Wednesday argued this would not be a delay of the individual mandate because the March 31 date for having insurance would remain.
They also noted on Twitter that people would still have to have coverage in the 2014 tax year.
“Individual mandate timing hasn’t changed,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest tweeted. “[The] deadline for having insurance is 3/31. Was true this [morning]. Is true tonight.”
Republican campaign committees have aggressively hammered Democratic candidates for the rollout glitches, and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity launched its own ads Wednesday slamming vulnerable Reps. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.) on the issue.
Democrats are attempting to shield themselves by rallying around the message that Obama-Care is “more than just a website.”
The phrase bounced around Capitol Hill Wednesday and was echoed at the White House, where spokesman Jay Carney said that even “perfection on a website” would not deliver all the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
House Democrats, who need to gain 17 seats to reclaim a House majority, relied on two other talking points Wednesday.
Many blue-state exchanges are functioning well, Democrats said.
And some suggested that as long as the administration fixes problems by December, when applicants much register to obtain coverage in January, the system will be fine.
“They feel very confident that that is going to be able to happen,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said Wednesday morning after a meeting with administration officials.
But these arguments do not tell the whole story. Democrats’ anxiety registered in a wave of heightened calls Wednesday for heads to roll at the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said administration officials should “absolutely” be held accountable for the site’s failures.
His rank-and-file members, including vulnerable Reps. Rick Nolan (Minn.) and Sean Maloney (N.Y.), were more direct in their demands.
Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) called the website’s rollout “disturbing and disappointing.“
“The president’s got to be out there taking charge and firing people,” he said.
Democrats also advocated for changes in the rollout’s timetable, another sign that the enrollment problems are taking a toll.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), all up for reelection next year, made headlines when they urged the administration to extend the enrollment period. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), meanwhile, is preparing to unveil a bill that would delay the individual mandate for one year.
Democratic Rep. John Barrow (Ga.), a frequent critic of the healthcare law, also called on the White House to delay the individual mandate.
“This isn’t about pointing fingers,” Barrow said Wednesday on the House floor.
“This is about providing some relief to the folks we represent who are facing serious uncertainty because they’re being forced to buy something that’s not ready,” he said.
Still, many Democrats outwardly said they have little concern that the current website problems will resound at the polls a year from now.
“By the time we get to 2014, it is my belief that this will long be fixed,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), head of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“People will already be seeing the benefits of it, and I think we’ll be fine.”
Supporters of the law also note that its poll numbers are edging up despite the rollout controversies.
A Gallup survey released Wednesday found that public support for ObamaCare increased 4 points since August, to 45 percent. Fifty percent still disapprove of the law.
This story was updated at 9:20 p.m.