As the implementation of Obamacare sent Democratic poll numbers plummeting in recent months, party leaders responded with an Obamacare message they hope will spare their candidates from the wrath of voters in 2014: Mend it, don't end it.
"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," Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said during a December 22 appearance on Meet the Press. "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."
Which parts of Obamacare need to be fixed, and how will Senate Democrats fix them? Schumer didn't say. Perhaps that's because a Democratic plan to fix Obamacare doesn't exist.
One Democratic senator tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD that plans to fix Obamacare haven't even been discussed at weekly Democratic Senate caucus meetings. "Never talked about it in the caucus," Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont said on Tuesday. "But I would note just a generality: It's difficult to get a consensus on fixing when the other side simply says, 'Repeal it all--all-or-nothing.'"
Other Democrats insist they're working in a smaller group on a plan to fix Obamacare, but they just haven't released it yet. "There's actually a group of us who are starting to work on a series of changes," Senator Mark Warner of Virginia told THE WEEKLY STANDARD on Tuesday. "The question will become: Will this be able to build a bipartisan approach, or it will be one side only?"
Warner didn't elaborate on who is in the group or what fixes might be proposed. "I'd rather not get into the some of the details yet," he said. The only specific problem he mentioned was the "30-hour cliff"--the law's (temporarily-suspended) provision that large employers must provide health insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours per week or pay steep fines.
Warner declined to say if he would support a delay of the individual mandate for all Americans in 2014. "I think I'll get back to you when we get the whole package together," he said.
Democrats are quick to point out that President Obama has used his executive authority to change problematic parts of the law. But many of the administrative "fixes"--delaying the employer mandate and delaying the individual mandate for people who lost plans because of Obamacare--have actually undermined the law. Letting some people temporarily escape from the law isn't supposed to keep down costs, it's supposed to make the law more palatable to voters.
If and when Senate Democrats get around to fixing Obamacare (a law that's been on the books for nearly four years), it's not clear that they will propose anything designed to address any of the law's biggest problems, such as higher costs and narrower provider networks for people forced onto Obamacare.
When Virginia's junior senator, Democrat Tim Kaine, was asked last week if premiums for Obamacare plans are too high, he replied, "No."
"It depends sort of on where you are," Kaine told THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "You read about some premiums that are really good stories, and then you read some challenging stories. And there are going to be people who are better off and worse off."
According to Kaine, Democrats are "kicking ideas around" to fix Obamacare, but he didn't provide any specific examples. "I'm going to keep it kind of vague," he said. "When I'm ready to sign onto something, I'll sign on to something."
When Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey was asked which parts of the law needed to be changed, he highlighted repeal of the medical device tax as a top priority. "Medical device is one of them. That's probably the most significant example," Casey told THE WEEKLY STANDARD last week. "There might be others down the road." A standalone measure to repeal the medical device tax already passed the House and has the support of 79 senators, but Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to bring this minor proposal up for a vote.
Democratic senators like Tim Kaine and Bob Casey have the luxury of supporting vague or minor tweaks to the law. They're not up for reelection until 2018. Their colleagues who have to face voters in less than ten months may need to come up with better ideas--if they can.