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ACA Delay May Hurt, Not Help, Dems in 2014

ACA Delay May Hurt, Not Help, Dems in 2014

By Alexis Simendinger - July 7, 2013

O-B-A-M-A-C-A-R-E, the president's signature first-term legislative achievement, may spell another round of political trouble for many Democrats, who have some new explaining to do, thanks to the White House.

Whether employers are eagerly sidestepping a key provision for another year (as many learned they would after a concession Tuesday night from President Obama) or House Republicans persist in voting to repeal the whole law (which they’ve done nearly 40 times), it’s clear the Affordable Care Act continues to exist under a cloud more than two years after its enactment.

“This is a setback for the administration and for Democrats,” Jim Manley, a former senior communications adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, told RCP. “It puts the Democrats in a little bit of a bind. …What you’re going to see is Republicans seizing on this for everything it is worth.”

Indeed. Republicans on Capitol Hill predicted that by bowing to complaints from the business community about burdens within a complex law, Obama opened a door to the possibility of delaying the implementation of the ACA as it affects individuals, who are required by January to buy insurance or pay penalties in 2015.

“What is a Democratic candidate supposed to say in light of this: 'Yes, I supported Obamacare but thankfully we delayed it to protect you from how bad it is’?" asked Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Administration officials, who this summer embarked on a campaign to encourage young, uninsured Americans to sign up for health coverage after Oct. 1 through new state-based insurance exchanges, said the individual enrollment required through January will proceed. But Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, in a statement posted on the White House website Tuesday, said the administration wanted to show flexibility as a law initially passed in 2010 will continue to take effect in 2015.

“As we implement this law, we have and will continue to make changes as needed,” Jarrett said.

“As needed” may have more to do with politics than the substantive changes Obama’s decision may have on the law, its defenders conceded.

The administration announced it will grant businesses an extra year before companies with 50 or more workers have to provide insurance to their employees or face federal penalties. But analysts in both parties said the one-year grace period won’t necessarily rescue embattled Democratic candidates who try to duck an unpopular law as they face re-election next year amid a tough economy.

Many Americans tell pollsters they are confused about the health care reform law or feel negatively about its provisions -- a condition that could worsen, rather than improve, over an even longer implementation phase, some Democratic sources suggested during interviews.

“As for 2014, it’s hard to see how it helps Democrats,” conservative political analyst Scott Rasmussen told RCP in an email. “Let’s assume that employers hold off on staff cutbacks because of the implementation delay. That will simply mean that we’ll be hearing the same stories about anticipated cutbacks in the middle of next year rather than this year.”

In a commentary, Rasmussen recently wrote that Americans want to control their health insurance choices in tandem with paycheck tradeoffs. In other words, if given the choice to go lighter on gold-plated coverage and heavier on their take-home pay, workers would choose the compensation over the investment in a hedge against medical risks. But that is not the choice or the mindset the law anticipates.

“Sixty-six percent think it's more important to let workers pick their own mix of insurance coverage and take-home pay,” Rasmussen, the president and founder of Rasmussen Reports, wrote in May. “If they had a choice, 59 percent would choose a less expensive health insurance plan that covered only major medical expenses and a bigger paycheck. Even a majority of those in the president's party would select that option.”

In that way, he argued, public sentiment shifts toward the repeal of central tenets of the law, even if legislative repeal remains unrealistic, given the Democratic control of the Senate.

After examining years of polling data about the health law, progressives also have conceded that Americans who find fault with the ACA outstrip those who say they approve of it.

However, a recent Democracy Corps Congressional Battleground survey that examined Democrats’ chances of victory in 2014 took comfort in the impatience many Americans expressed (including some Republicans) with repeated House votes to repeal the controversial law.

“In the most competitive seats, voters favor implementing the law over repealing it by eight points,” the Democratic pollsters wrote. “Strong majorities support implementing and improving the health care reform law, including 60 percent of seniors and 63 percent of unmarried women.” They noted that senior citizens could be key in elections next year because they tend to vote in higher numbers than other segments of the electorate in non-presidential years.

That’s cold comfort, sniffed conservatives who joined forces with the business community, including small business owners, to fight the law and its implementation.

“Yesterday's decision to delay Obamacare's business penalties until after the 2014 elections is an admission that the issue is toxic for Democrats all over the country,” Rob Simms, political director for the National Republican Campaign Committee, told RCP in an email. “Democrats and pundits may falsely claim that it takes the issue off of the table, but it actually helps set the table for further Republican gains in Congress next year.”

Asked on CNBC Tuesday to dissect the midterm ramifications of Obama’s decision, economist Peter Orszag, the president’s first director of the Office of Management and Budget and a proponent of federal cost savings derived long-term from health reform, said the president’s team “by definition” believed a delay in implementation might help politically, “or they wouldn’t have done it.”

Republican critics take aim at projected higher costs for businesses and individuals, rather than the slower pace at which health care costs have been rising throughout the industry, which is Orszag’s focus. The arguments force the parties into an unusual role reversal, with conservatives siding with confused small business owners and workers, while Democrats seem to champion long-term federal cost-cutting.

“President Obama and [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi will own all of the false claims and promises made to the American people when they rammed this through the House,” Simms warned. “They said health care costs would decline; in fact they are rising. They promised those who liked their insurance could keep it; today thousands are losing their coverage because of it. They said it would actually lower the deficit, but it is now adding to the debt.”

No one seemed entirely clear how Obama’s decision to prolong the ACA’s implementation might affect Hillary Clinton, should she decide to seek the presidency again in 2016. The failure of health care reform during President Clinton’s first term, and the former New York senator’s defeat in the 2008 Democratic primaries after debating Obama on universal coverage suggest the ex-secretary of state will have to embrace the law, or explain what she’d seek to change.

During the February 2008 debate with Clinton, Obama boasted he understood how to bring splintered factions together to get health reform through Congress. He said not a word about managing the law after it passed.

“The way she approached it back in '93, I think, was wrong in part because she had the view that what's required is simply to fight,” the then-Illinois senator said of his primary rival. “And Senator Clinton ended up fighting not just the insurance companies and the drug companies, but also members of her own party. … The only way we are going to actually get this stuff done is … we're going to have to mobilize and inspire the American people so that they're paying attention to what their government is doing. And that's what I've been doing in this campaign, and that's what I will do as president,” he added. “There's nothing romantic or silly about that. If the American people are activated, that's how change is going to happen.”

Some Democrats in Washington told RCP that’s exactly their worry heading into 2014.

RealClearPolitics Capitol Hill Correspondent Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed to this report.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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