WASHINGTON — Looking toward their own re-election prospects rather than standing by their party or president, 39 Democrats in the House of Representatives broke ranks Friday to support a Republican bill that would modify President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
By a vote of 261-122, the Republican-led House approved a bill that would allow insurance companies to sell new customers individual health policies in 2014 that don’t meet the minimum coverage requirements set by the health care law.
The vote came a day after the president, under heavy pressure from his allies on Capitol Hill, softened a key provision of the Affordable Care Act. He said policyholders whose plans had been canceled in anticipation of the new law going into effect could keep them for another year.
Obama had already apologized to people who got cancellation letters for promising them they could keep their policies if they preferred, rather than sign up for coverage through the online insurance marketplace.
The differences between the House-passed bill, offered by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and what Obama announced is that the president’s plan would apply only to people with existing policies and would require insurers to tell them what parts of their plans were substandard compared with the Affordable Care Act.
The Republican bill contains neither restriction.
Problems have plagued the Affordable Care Act since the debut of its insurance marketplaces last month, largely the result of a glitch-laden website that’s prevented many people from navigating the system. Enrollment numbers after the first month didn’t meet administration estimates.
The pressure Obama was feeling from Democratic lawmakers was at least equal to the anxiety lawmakers have been experiencing as next year’s midterm elections loom and the health law rollout continues to underperform. That includes newcomers who weren’t in Congress when the law was approved and veteran members who seldom worry about re-election.
“This isn’t your typical issue,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. “This is something that very dramatically affects people.”
Only last month, Republicans were feeling heat from constituents over a two-week partial government shutdown. But now Democrats are the ones in the hot seat, their hopes for retaking control of the House, always an uphill battle, made even steeper.
More than two dozen Democrats who voted with the Republicans on Friday are top targets next year for the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to spokeswoman Andrea Bozek.
Pitney said that when forced to choose between loyalty to party and president and the voters who put you in office, it’s not a difficult calculation for most lawmakers.
“Go with the angry constituents every time,” he said.
Among the 39 Democrats who sided with Republicans on the House bill were six from California, a state dominated by Democrats but where the GOP hopes to contest congressional districts that hadn’t seen much competition until recently.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., wasn’t even in Congress when the health care law passed in 2010. Still, he’s repeatedly tried to distance himself from the law’s less popular provisions. In addition to voting for the Upton bill, he co-sponsored a Republican measure to delay for two years a tax on insurance companies that would generate billons of dollars.
Bera, a physician who was elected last year by a narrow margin, said he’d received pushback from his leadership.
“I get yelled at sometimes,” he said, but added that his vote wasn’t a vote against the president.
“It’s about being pragmatic and solving problems as they arise,” he said.
House Republican campaign efforts have singled out other freshmen Democrats from California, including Reps. Raul Ruiz, who’s also a physician, Scott Peters and Julia Brownley.
The GOP also is going after more seasoned lawmakers it considers vulnerable. Rep. John Garamendi once served as the state insurance commissioner and regulated health care companies. In a 2010 news release, he hailed the health care law’s protections, echoing Obama’s frequently repeated promise that Americans could keep the policies they had, if they liked them.
That turned out not to be true, and Republicans plan to remind voters every chance they get who made that promise. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the third-ranking House Republican, compiled a list of lawmakers who made statements similar to the president’s, including Garamendi and five-term Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., both of whom voted for the Upton bill.
“Any Democrat who talked that way is going to have a problem,” Pitney said.
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