WASHINGTON — Many of the Democrats who voted for a GOP bill to undo the Affordable Care Act’s insurance plan cancellations last week, three Minnesotans among them, said they supported the bill as a common-sense fix to an otherwise good law.
But minority leader Nancy Pelosi may have betrayed some of their thinking on Sunday when she called the vote a “political” one over anything else.
Most of the Democrats voting for the bill, including the Minnesotans, are in marginal or swing districts. Rep. Collin Peterson has a checkered voting history on the Affordable Care Act, but for Reps. Tim Walz and Ricks Nolan, it was one of their few major breaks with the law.
The vote came a time when the fervor over the already politicized health-care law is reaching a fever pitch. Republicans are ratcheting up their Obamacare attacks as the law and the president see their popularity stumble, and Democrats say they’re left trying to fix what they can, and otherwise preparing to ride out the storm.
“It’s one of those things where time will tell,” Nolan said. “Democrats are obviously hopeful that once this thing gets fully implemented that people will be comfortable with it and will find it to have been a positive.”
The botched rollout has been a political boon for Republicans, who saw a major post-government shutdown polling disadvantage disappear as the law’s problems came to light. The law’s popularity is underwater, and it’s dragged President Obama’s approval rating to record lows, which prognosticators say could hurt down-ballot Democrats in a midterm election, if the blow-back lasts until then.
Republicans have made hay with the law’s problems. As early as October, even before the mass cancellation notices began hitting mailboxes, the National Republican Congressional Committee was targeting even possibly vulnerable Democrats, including the three Minnesotans, for their support of the law. They’re betting Democrats who have both supported the ACA and voted against GOP repeal or defund efforts will hear it from voters if the rollout continues to be shaky.
“After being loyal Obamacare foot soldiers for years, vulnerable Democrats across the country are now trying to distance themselves from this disastrous law,” NRCC spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said in a statement. “Minnesotans don’t need poll-driven politicians whose positions change with the political winds and will say anything to keep their seat in Congress.”
Republican activists in Minnesota say they’re trying to build grassroots opposition to the law. The health insurance cancellation notices are especially potent, Carol Stevenson, the chair of the 1st District GOP said, since it gives a personal touch to a problem most voters will only read about, not experience themselves (the cancellations went out to about 140,000 Minnesotans).
Stevenson said activists are ready to tie local Democrats to national politicians as well. She quoted Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, the chairwoman of the DNC, who said Democrats are going to run on Obamacare next year.
“If they’re planning on that, we’re right there with them,” Stevenson said. “Please do.”
Dems: Wait it out
Political vote last week or not, Democrats say they’re not panicking yet.
They acknowledge that the health care rollout has sapped them of their shutdown polling bump, but that’s the same reason they’re not ready to back away from the ACA just yet — polling is a snapshot in time, and their fortunes could turn around in the next 11 months.
“After the shutdown, the difference in the polling between Democrats and Republicans was the best margin we’ve ever had,” Nolan said. “So that tells you the impact of it.”
Walz said he expects the reaction to the health care law to follow that path.
“Certainly there are political fortunes that go up and down,” Walz said. “Up and down 10 more times, that’s the way things go.”
DFL Chairman Ken Martin said Democrats need to have a better message when it comes to talking about the law.
He acknowledged Republicans have had success talking about the plan cancellation issue over the past several weeks. But he predicted Democrats will be able to run on the law if all of its kinks are worked out over the next few months. (Democrats, he said, “have a continued commitment to improving Obamacare”).
“The sooner Democrats in Washington and around the country can get this thing fixed, the sooner we can move on to other topics,” Martin said.
And Walz, at least, is ready with a to-do list: Lawmakers could be focusing on everything from a budget or a farm bill to bipartisan water resources legislation rather than once again fighting it out over health care, he said.
“If you think you’re going to do nothing between now and next year except talk about health care, you’re not serving the public well,” he said.
Too early to jump to conclusions
Friday’s vote was one in a long string of messaging votes from House Republicans who often bring anti-Obamacare bills to the floor knowing they’re dead in the Senate and with Obama. But more than with any other bill, potentially vulnerable Democrats used the vote for political cover as well: Of the 29 Democrats on the radar of the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball House prognosticators, 26 of them voted for the legislation.
The vote gives those Democrats a chance to say they advanced a bipartisan solution for a bad policy in a law they generally support, but since the bill isn’t going anywhere, they don’t have to worry about what might happen if it becomes law.
But that type of posturing might not save them if the law’s unpopularity continues to grow, Crystal Ball managing editor Kyle Kondik said. Democrats in swingy districts are more likely to be caught up in an anti-Democratic wave than their colleagues in more liberal area who voted against the GOP’s bill in the first place.
That theory has one very relevant example: Obamacare itself. Thirty-four House Democrats voted against the bill in 2010; only six remain in office today (Peterson is one of them).
“I think certainly members who sit in competitive districts … try to triangulate the best way they can,” Kondik sad. But, “if there is a wave, the people who sit in moderate districts are going to be the ones who get swept up in it.”
But Kondik said it’s way too early to talk about waves or even how the health care rollout will play with voters during the midterms, still 347 days away.
“It would have been unwise to jump to conclusions after the shutdown,” he said, “and I think it’s equally unwise to jump to conclusions about Obamacare.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry