Many leading Democrats say they want to "fix" the Affordable Care Act. "I think what most Americans want us to do is not repeal Obamacare, which is what our Republican colleagues are focused on, but fix it," said Sen. Charles Schumer on "Meet the Press" on Dec. 22. "The president is working to fix it; we are working in the Senate to fix it; we urge our Republican colleagues to join us in fixing it."
Sounds good. But what, precisely, are Democrats on Capitol Hill doing to fix Obamacare? The answer is not much.
"It's just a talking point," says a GOP Senate aide of Schumer's claim. (A Schumer spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.)
"No Democratic fixes jump out," says a GOP House aide. "Seems like all they want to do is continue delaying portions of the law to insulate themselves against the political fallout."
A spokesman for Rep. Tom Price, one of the House GOP's leaders on health care policy, says Democrats haven't contacted Price to discuss possible fixes to Obamacare. "No," says the spokesman. "No one has approached." The same is true for Rep. Steve Scalise, another House Republican health care leader.
In recent months, Democrats have often pointed out — correctly — that Republicans, as much as they profess to want to "replace" Obamacare with something better, have never actually united behind a proposal to do the job. Now, it appears Democrats, as much as they profess to want to fix Obamacare, don't have much going, either.
Yes, some Democrats --- Sens. Mary Landrieu, Joe Manchin, and Jeanne Shaheen -- proposed measures to delay Obamacare provisions affecting Americans who lost coverage, or to postpone deadlines for people to sign up. But those were basically quickie, temporary patches put forward in the panicky days after Obamacare's disastrous Oct. 1 rollout.
In terms of proposing serious, long-term fixes to some of the most burdensome features of Obamacare — the higher premiums, higher deductibles, and narrowed choice of doctors that millions of Americans will face — Democrats on Capitol Hill have little or nothing to offer.
Instead, they point to some of the things the Obama administration has done unilaterally — delaying the employer mandate, extending some deadlines, issuing decrees on canceled policies, etc. — to say that Obamacare is being fixed, just not by Congress.
The reason those actions were taken administratively, Democrats say, is that Republicans won't cooperate on anything when it comes to the Affordable Care Act. "The fact that these changes had to be made through executive action rather than legislation just shows that everyone who's being honest knows real fixes — efforts that are sincerely aimed at improving the law on its own terms — will never pass the House, and probably can't count on real support or even thoughtful engagement from Senate Republicans, either," says a Senate Democratic aide.
That's true. Democrats are stuck. Of course, they might have thought of that when they passed Obamacare without a single Republican vote. Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for a brief moment — just 134 days in 2009 and 2010 — but now do not have the power to push bills through Congress on their own. So their decision to run over Republicans back then has come back to bite them now in the form of total GOP alienation.
There's another explanation for the lack of Democratic fixes to Obamacare. For many, the Affordable Care Act is performing pretty much as planned. That includes the parts that are imposing terrible burdens on some Americans.
In a new article in the New Republic, liberal journalist Noam Scheiber writes that Obamacare was designed to create unacceptable conditions — crushingly expensive premiums for some Americans, "maddeningly insufficient health insurance" for others -- that would create pressure on Congress to step in and grant relief in the form of more generous benefits. Ultimately, supporters like Scheiber hope, Obamacare will grow into a giant single-payer federal program.
Of course, that's not at all what President Obama and Democrats said when they campaigned for the bill. That troubles liberals like Scheiber not at all. "I consider [Obamacare] a deceptively sneaky way to get the health care system [we] really want," he writes.
Given that point of view — and it was shared by some Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill — don't look for much zeal from Democrats to fix Obamacare. Of course, they have to say they want to make changes, because so many Americans are facing the law's negative effects. But if those negative effects eventually lead to a sprawling, bureaucratically centralized, single-payer national health care system -- in other words, to what some Democrats have worked toward for generations — well, why would they want to "fix" that?