After unity, some Democrats push back on Obama over health care, spying and more
Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Just two weeks after President Barack Obama saw his Democratic Party put up an unyielding front against Republicans, his coalition is showing signs of stress.
From health care to spying to pending budget deals, many congressional Democrats are challenging the administration and pushing for measures that the White House has not embraced.
Some Democrats are seeking to extend the enrollment period for new health care exchanges. Others want to place restraints on National Security Administration surveillance capabilities. Still others are standing tough against any budget deal that uses long-term reductions in major benefit programs to offset immediate cuts in defense.
Though focused on disparate issues, the Democrats' anxieties are connected by timing and stand out all the more when contrasted with the remarkable unity the party displayed during the recent showdown over the partial government shutdown and the confrontation over raising the nation's borrowing limit.
"That moment was always going to be fleeting," said Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House and who regularly consults with Obama aides. "The White House, every White House, understands that these folks, driven either by principle or the demands of the politics of their state, have to put daylight between themselves and the president on occasion."
Obama and the Democrats emerged from the debt and shutdown clash with what they wanted: a reopened government, a higher debt ceiling and a Republican Party reeling in the depths of public opinion polls.
But within days, attention turned to the problem-riddled launch of the 3-year-old health care law's enrollment stage and revelations that the U.S. had been secretly monitoring the communications of as many as 35 allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And with new budget talks underway, Democratic Party liberals reiterated demands that Obama not agree to changes that reduce Social Security or Medicare benefits even in the improbable event Republicans agree to increase budget revenues.
The fraying on the Democratic Party edges is hardly unraveling Obama's support and it pales when compared to the upheaval within the Republican Party as it distances itself from the tactics of tea party conservatives. But the pushback from Democrats comes as Obama is trying to draw renewed attention to his agenda, including passage of an immigration overhaul, his jobs initiatives and the benefits of his health care law.
The computer troubles that befell the start of health insurance sign-ups have caused the greatest anxiety. Republicans pounced on the difficulties as evidence of deeper flaws in the law. But Democrats, even as they defended the policy, also demanded answers in the face of questions from their constituents.
"The fact is that the administration really failed these Americans," Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., told Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner at a hearing this week. "So going forward, there can be just no more excuses."
In the Senate, 10 Democrats signed on to a letter seeking an unspecified extension of the enrollment period, which ends March 31. "As you continue to fix problems with the website and the enrollment process, it is critical that the administration be open to modifications that provide greater flexibility for the American people seeking to access health insurance," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote.
Another Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has called for a one-year delay in the requirement that virtually all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine.
On Thursday, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, Tavenner and the White House's designated troubleshooter for the health care web site, Jeffrey Zients, were meeting privately with Senate Democrats to offer reassurances. And in an interview on CNN, Vice President Joe Biden apologized for the problems. "There's no excuse," he said, "We just have to fix it."
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