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Democrats Seek Support for Bills to Offset Obamacare Woes

Two Senate Democrats are rallying support for measures to delay Obamacare penalties or let people keep their health plans as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies again on the flawed rollout.

Senate Democratic leaders aren’t saying whether they will allow votes on the proposals by Mary Landrieu of Louisiana on existing policies or Joe Manchin of West Virginia to delay fines for a year. Landrieu and Manchin represent Republican-leaning states where majorities opposed President Barack Obama in 2012, and their efforts underscore Democrats’ anxiety over the failures of the online exchanges.

“We’ll have to see: There are hundreds of bills introduced every week and we have to sort through those that have the opportunity to be voted on,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters yesterday when asked whether he’d allow a vote on Landrieu’s bill.

Since opening Oct. 1, the website serving 36 states has been plagued by delays, error messages and hang-ups that prevented customers from completing applications. The failures unleashed new criticism from Republican opponents.

Obama is traveling to Dallas today to thank volunteers working to enroll uninsured Texans through the new marketplaces, while Sebelius will testify before the Senate Finance Committee. A week ago, a Republican-controlled House panel grilled her on the program’s glitches.

Delaying Penalty

Manchin, who represents a state where four in 10 primary voters last year backed a convicted felon over Obama, will meet today with senators he’s trying to persuade to back a proposal delaying the penalty for individuals who fail to sign up by March 31.

The penalty -- $95 or 1 percent of a person’s annual income, whichever is greater -- is a core provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that the White House has resisted changing.

“We’re still talking to our different colleagues on both sides,” Manchin said yesterday in an interview at the Capitol, adding, “I’d like for it to be as bipartisan as possible.”

Manchin plans to introduce the bill by week’s end, his spokesman Jonathan Kott said in an e-mail.

Manchin said his concern about delays in the enrollment process “hasn’t changed” since he started working several weeks ago with Georgia Republican Senator Johnny Isakson to craft the proposal.

“The product’s poor, and you’ve got to have the thing fixed,” Manchin said. Democratic party leaders have yet to say whether the plan would get a vote, he said.

Landrieu Bill

Landrieu, who’s seeking a fourth term in 2014 in a state that Obama lost last year by 17 percentage points, introduced legislation this week to allow individuals to keep their current health plans as long as they stay up-to-date on payments.

Republicans have seized on reports that hundreds of thousands of Americans got notices that their existing plans had been canceled because of the 2010 law, contradicting Obama’s pledge that people who liked their coverage could keep it.

“A promise was made and this legislation will ensure that this promise is kept,” Landrieu said in a statement. “People should be able to keep their plans if they want to.”

Landrieu was among the 10 Democratic senators who signed a letter to the Obama administration, later endorsed by an 11th senator, seeking an extension of the insurance exchange’s open enrollment period beyond the March 31 deadline.

Repair Promised

Sebelius and Obama have pledged that the website will be repaired and Americans will have enough time to enroll.

New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat seeking re-election next year, drafted the letter and said her concerns are unassuaged.

“I want to make sure that people in New Hampshire and across the country, my constituents that need health care, are going to be able to get it,” she said.

Shaheen, who was among the Democrats who questioned White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other officials about the website at an Oct. 31 Capitol lunch, said she’s “reviewing several pieces of proposed legislation” and hadn’t signed on to any so far.

Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who also was at the meeting, told a Senate panel yesterday that signup delays are easing and the exchange can register 17,000 customers per hour “with almost no errors.”

More Access

Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich, who’s seeking a second term next year in a state Obama that twice lost by double digit margins, said he has noticed improvements in the application process.

“They’ve definitely gotten better the last few days -- the last week, I’d say -- which is good,” Begich said in an interview at the Capitol. “But there’s still more improvements that they have to do and making it more accessible for everyday people to get access to.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces a primary challenger backed by the Tea Party, took note of Democrats’ complaints about the exchanges.

“What’ll be really interesting to see in the Senate is the number of Democrats in very red states who are up in ’14, and what they start demanding of the majority leader and the administration, in terms of adjustments to this law,” he said.

‘Obama Supporter’

Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a super political action committee that’s backing McConnell, started airing an ad this week that invokes Obama’s pledge that Americans can keep their health-care plans if they like them and calls Democrat Alison Grimes -- McConnell’s general election opponent if he survives the primary -- an “Obama supporter.”

“When liberals don’t tell the truth, Kentucky gets burned,” the ad states.

Reid disputed that enrollment problems would hurt Senate Democrats in elections next year.

“Senator McConnell, if he were wise, what he would start worrying about is his Republican senators and not worry about my Democratic senators,” Reid said.

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