Democrats on Capitol Hill are badly in need of a lodestar.
Their hysteria over the state of the Affordable Care Act plays to stereotype, but it's actually somewhat justified in this case. Many congressional Democrats, but particularly the most politically vulnerable of them, are beset every day with more angry constituents who've both had their insurance policies canceled (which was inevitable), and are unable to access new coverage on a broken healthcare.gov (which was not). Then on Friday, House Republicans will force them into conflict with President Obama by holding a vote on a bill that's dressed up as an effort to restore coverage to people whose policies have been canceled, but might actually eat away at the law's foundation.
In a real way, Democratic restlessness is more justified now than it was in 2010, when Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat and they nearly abandoned health care reform altogether. Back then they were making a signal-to-noise error, misinterpreting voter outrage at the state of the economy as pointed disgust with Democratic reform efforts.
Now the law's in effect, it's not working as promised at a crucial moment, and the only solutions available threaten to upset the delicate balance their party's signature policy requires to be successful in the long term. The president's incentives and the incentives of vulnerable congressional Democrats really are misaligned. Democrats can't be faulted for grasping. They're lost in a fog. Their imperative now is to get through it without falling into any traps.
The good news is that in their haste to win more news cycles and torment Democrats with spooky noises, Republicans have done a poor job of setting them.
Democrats' overarching goal now is to muddle through this debacle without purposefully or unintentionally forcing anything into law that will harm the Affordable Care Act's medium and long-range prospects.
The administration's supposedly working on an administrative fix that will perhaps help people whose plans have been canceled. That might relieve some of the pressure on members of Congress. But options are decidedly limited. The White House can't conjure up subsidies for people who don't qualify, and can't grandfather so many policies that the markets lack the scale and demographic balance they need to thrive.
What would really hasten the end of the crisis is if they got the website to work! But until it does, Democrats on the Hill will remain restive. That means some of them might end up voting for bad bills; bad bills might pass the House and the Senate; President Obama might even have to veto something.
All of that's okay. Where we cross the line dividing crisis and disaster is if Democrats help Republicans override a veto of legislation that sabotages the law.
Fortunately we're a long way from veto territory, and part of the reason is that Republicans don't seem to have thought through their plan to capitalize on the Democrats' political troubles. When you look more than one move ahead, it turns out that legislative efforts to uphold President Obama's "keep your plan" promise lead fascinating and unpredictable places.
The GOP's big masterstroke is a bill authored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich, called the Keep Your Health Plan Act. I explained it here as a measure that would allow insurance companies to reinstate plans they canceled in the run up to Obamacare and sell them outside the exchanges for one year. It's conceived as a poison pill, but it only dissolves in communal waters.
Republican leaders embraced it because its most proximate consequence was to put Democrats in a bind. And it did that. But it turns out there are a million contingencies. What happens, for instance, if Democrats "cave," Obama signs it reluctantly and insurance companies respond by doing nothing? An epically buried lede in this Politico story suggests that's exactly what would happen:
Insurance industry sources say that it’s likely too late to undo the cancellation notices that already have gone out, meaning the Upton bill is unlikely to actually restore coverage.
Nobody would get their coverage back, no appendage plans would be allowed to drain the marketplaces, the subterfuge would fail, the policy impact would be non-existent, and the political issue would be neutralized.
Democrats haven't called Upton's bluff -- at least not yet.
Instead, a number of rank and file Senate Democrats are organizing around an alternative authored by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La, that would force insurers to reinstate canceled coverage, and honor it as long as its beneficiaries keep paying their premiums. It would also require insurers to apprise customers of coverage deficiencies relative to policies available on the exchanges. In other words, unlike the Upton bill, it would actually make good on Obama's "keep your plan" promise. The logistical problems with Landrieu's plan abound. It's also decidedly un-conservative. Thus, it creates a new, complex storyline with an unpredictable narrative arc. As with so many other Obamacare subplots, roads that at first seem treacherous turn out to lead interesting places.
Would Senate Republicans kill the bill -- and thus bail out vulnerable Democrats -- on the principled grounds that they don't want to suffocate insurers with onerous mandates? Or would they set aside principle and assure its passage? Would the whole initiative get bogged down in a bicameral conference committee? Or would House Republicans fast track it, to isolate President Obama?
If he vetoed it, who in Congress would take the political hit to assure that a messaging vote strategy didn't spin out of control and create law by accident? If you're a Republican, do you really want to be the 67th (or 290th) vote to override that veto?
This could play out in a million ways, but very few of them leave Democrats without cover, or genuinely undermine reform.
And that's all before we get to the next chapter, where, having established the principle that people should be allowed to keep the insurance they have, Republicans either do an about-face and attempt to take benefits away from millions of people, or abandon their quixotic quest to repeal Obamacare.