Obama facing Democratic dissent on healthcare law

WASHINGTON — President Obama's botched rollout of his healthcare law has driven a wedge between the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill as more than three dozen House Democrats voted Friday to pass a Republican-backed change to the law that the administration warned would only make matters worse.

Unhappy with Obama's inability to resolve the website enrollment problems and increasingly worried about the 2014 election, a small but steady number of Democratic lawmakers are distancing themselves from a president they once enthusiastically supported on the healthcare issue.

Friday's House vote was the latest display of Democratic anxiety. Thirty-nine Democrats joined Republicans in a 261-157 vote to approve legislation, offered by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), that would allow insurers to continue selling individual policies that don't meet new federal standards under the Affordable Care Act.

A similar Democratic revolt is underway in the Senate, pushing already rocky relations between Obama and congressional Democrats to a new low. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, among the most endangered Democrats up for reelection in the Senate next year, vowed to press forward with her bill to remedy the policy cancellation problem, which picked up support throughout the week.

The Democratic defections, which the White House and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) worked to limit, reflected dissatisfaction among the lawmakers with the administration's proposed fix. That plan would give insurance companies federal permission to renew canceled policies for one year, but many lawmakers prefer a legislative fix.

Democratic leaders cornered wavering lawmakers in the House chamber on Friday after a tumultuous week that saw White House officials making repeated pilgrimages to Capitol Hill to tamp down discord.

"I'm just sending a message by my vote to my constituents back home that I'm going to take whatever action I can take as a member of Congress to fix the problems that have been created, unfortunately, in the law," said Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), who voted in favor of the Upton bill. "It's me being responsible to the people back home."

In announcing his solution at a news conference Thursday, Obama acknowledged the political damage some Democrats were suffering because of their support for the law.

"There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they're running or not, because they stood up and supported this effort through thick and thin," Obama said. "And I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them rather than easier for them to continue to promote the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place."

Facing a midterm election in which support for Obamacare will be used in Republican attacks, an insistent group of moderate Democrats is staking out a more independent path.

Many of these Democrats are freshmen, running for their first reelection, or veteran lawmakers who know what it takes to run a tough campaign in the few remaining politically mixed parts of the country.

Defections by House Democrats included not just lawmakers like Barber who represent swing or Republican-leaning districts. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), a candidate for an open Senate seat in his state next year, also voted for the bill.

"As much as anything, I see it as a trust issue," said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who voted Friday for the Republican plan.

Even though her two adult sons have benefited from the Obamacare provision that allows parents to keep their children on family policies until they are 26, Bustos said that after hearing concerns from constituents last week she had to act.

"In the end, you only have your word," she said. "I had nothing to do with those initial votes, but I am associated with it now."

Democratic leaders were pleased the tally was not more damaging for the president. The 39 votes for the GOP plan were on par with the results from other votes this year on Republican bills to undo Obamacare.

Both the Upton bill and the president's administrative fix were crafted to respond to the millions of cancellation notices being sent to customers in the individual insurance market, despite repeated promises by Obama that Americans would be allowed to keep their plans if they wanted.

The GOP-controlled House was always expected to approve the bill, which Republicans described as the first step in a campaign to kill the Affordable Care Act.

It was unlikely that the Senate would pass a similar bill, and Obama has vowed to veto the measure if it reaches his desk.

"It will not fix that problem," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who called the bill a "Trojan horse" to repeal the law. "What it will do is undermine the ability of millions and millions and millions of people to have health security."

House Democrats offered an alternative proposal, similar to Landrieu's Senate bill, that would allow individuals who had substandard plans to keep them for an additional year.

The open display of Democratic disunity has jolted a party that has been largely able to keep its internal divisions at bay in recent months as the civil war within the Republican Party grew.

The coattails of Obama's first election in 2008 propelled eight Democratic senators into office. His reelection in 2012 brought a new class of 40 House Democrats.

But with the president's approval rating at or near all-time lows in most public surveys, Democrats are increasingly searching for ways to inoculate themselves against "Obama fatigue" next year. The healthcare rollout debacle has provided a clear opportunity.

Yet many Democrats may find they have little choice but to stand with the president's signature domestic policy achievement.

With the expected onslaught of anti-Obamacare ads coming in the midterm election campaign, Democrats will have difficulty divorcing themselves from the issue. And if Obama succeeds in resolving the problems, they don't want to risk being seen as opponents of the law or critics of the administration.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) called the rollout "rotten." But he, like other Democrats who voted against the president on this issue, nonetheless said he was committed to seeing that the law be properly implemented.

"I'm disgusted about it," Rahall said, adding he thinks "heads should roll downtown, whoever was responsible" for the rollout problems. But, he said, "my goal is to fix it."

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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