The Morning Plum: Obamacare gets another chance

The Obama administration announced over the weekend that it had met its goals for fixing the problems plaguing the federal website for the “vast majority” of users, claiming the site is functioning more than 90 percent of the time, though many problems (particularly at the back end) remain.

If this bears out, could it shift a political situation that is working heavily against the law and Democrats?

One bright spot: Around 100,000 people signed up for health insurance through the federal website in November, a senior administration official tells me, confirming a figure that was first reported by Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman. As Goldman notes, this is still far short of the administration’s goal, but it is four times as many as in October, suggesting two things: A steady increase in signups, and a potential sign that “consumers are keeping an open mind” about the law, despite the technical failures.

The news of improvements has not put the slightest dent in the absolute certainty among Republicans that its epic collapse is underway. GOP Rep. Tom Cole flatly predicted that the law’s future would be an “unmitigated disaster for the president,” while Senator Bob Corker suggested the law can’t be fixed.

The truth is that it’s still too early to say whether the fixes will translate into long term success — because what really matters is whether the law works over time, which means enough people successfully enrolling in the right demographic mix for the exchanges to function properly. Most signs suggest demand is there. But as Jonathan Cohn and Brian Beutler detail, the real test will be how the website performs if and when we see enrollment surges this month and before the March 31st deadline, and what the enrollment mix looks like later next year.

However, it does seem clear that the administration’s announcement extended the law’s period of probation among Dems. They responded to the news by arguing that even if problems remain, they can be fixed, and that the promise of expanded coverage is one worth holding out for.

Along these lines, it’s worth reiterating that even if disapproval of the law is running high, polls show majorities still believe the law can work and want to give it a chance. Yes, Dems have clearly been on the defensive, and yes, it could still fail over time, which would be a political fiasco. But if it works, Republicans, too, may find themselves in a difficult dynamic. Having bet it all on Obamacare’s already-sealed doom, they will have no choice but to respond to every bit of good news (some of it involving expanded coverage for Americans who previously lacked it) with more declarations of certainty about — and more outright rooting for — the law’s total failure.

Of course, there’s no need to entertain the possibility that this dynamic could be problematic, since Republican officials and Republican voters know beyond any doubt that the law can’t possibly prove anything other than a total catastrophe.

* SENATE DEMS PRESS AHEAD WITH IRAN SANCTIONS: The Post reports that Senate Dems are pressing ahead with new Iran sanctions legislation, despite the White House’s fears that it will undermine the prospects for a long term deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program:

The administration contends that new sanctions not only would violate the terms of the interim agreement — which temporarily freezes Iran’s nuclear programs and modestly eases existing sanctions — but also could divide the United States from its international negotiating partners across the table from Iran and give the upper hand to Iranian hard-liners in upcoming talks.

Senate Dems argue new sanctions legislation will help the administration by increasing pressure, but as Dem Rep. and leading pro-Israel hawk Eliot Engel has noted, Dems can play bad cop by having sanctions ready to go after the deal’s six month deadline, without passing legislation in the middle of negotiations.

* VULNERABLE DEMS TARGETED ON OBAMACARE: An outside conservative group is launching new ads hitting a range of vulnerable House Dems over the health law’s failures. This sort of thing is worth keeping an eye on as a sign of how committed the GOP is to the law’s certain failure, as well as for whether Dems will meaningfully distance themselves from the law.

* HOPES NARROW FOR BUDGET TALKS: Paul Kane brings us the latest on the dwindling possibility of a budget deal being negotiated by Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan:

Both lawmakers have expressed optimism in the past few weeks, but that is largely because they have narrowed the scope of their aspirations. Their talks now focus on just a few possible trade-offs that give agencies some relief from the sequestration caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act in exchange for some savings drawn from entitlement programs.

Still, many insiders are betting that even a small bargain is beyond reach and that, instead, congressional leaders will have to figure out early next year how to keep the government running when funding authority expires Jan. 15.

Which appears to mean another continuing resolution funding the government at sequester levels. But can House Republicans pass one?

* GOP’S DILEMMA IN BUDGET TALKS: National Journal spells out the problem Republicans face as they seek to replace the sequester cuts with only spending cuts elsewhere:

The GOP strategy carries significant downside, however. Republicans want the spending cuts, but this next phase of sequestration includes politically tricky reductions to Pentagon spending — a $20 billion slash that many lawmakers are desperate to stop. House Republicans, particularly, could find themselves in a lose-lose situation. They acknowledge the damage done by October’s shutdown saga and are determined to avoid a repeat in January, but many GOP lawmakers are afraid of cutting the Pentagon’s funding.

This is why some Dems appear convinced that their best move is to continue insisting on a sequester replacement that includes new revenues.

* POPULIST LEFT PRESSURES DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Zachary Goldfarb has a good overview of a trend we’ve discussed a lot here: The pressure from the left on the Democratic Party to strike a more economically progressive posture on a range of issues, thanks to a new crop of energetic liberal lawmakers such as Elizabeth Warren. Senator Bernie Sanders claims he may take up that mantle in 2016:

“I don’t wake up every morning saying, ‘Oh my goodness, I really want to be president,’ ” Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, said in an interview. “But somebody’s got to be out there, and if nobody is, I’ll do it.”

Whether or not Warren runs, her popularity with the Democratic grassroots suggests 2016 Dem hopefuls will have to grapple with the demand for a populist stance on issues from financial reform to inequality to the push to expand Social Security.

* TIME TO RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE: Paul Krugman’s column makes the argument for a minimum wage hike: The minimum wage is low by historical standards; raising it would increase the salaries of millions; evidence shows the supposed adverse impacts just aren’t there; and given its broad popularity, it could conceivably pass Congress.

Of course, it would have a better chance of passing Congress if the GOP were a functional opposition. Right now the only thing that is currently moving the minimum wage issue to the forefront, as Steve Coll reports in a good piece, is grassroots pushes around the country.

* AND GUN CONTROL AS A WINNING ISSUE? The campaign manager for Dem Mark Herring, the certified winner of the race for Virginia attorney general, says his embrace of gun safety legislation, and the GOP candidate’s opposition to it, actually helped draw a favorable contrast for his candidate, despite NRA ads against him, because opposition reflected “a state and a voter mind-set that no longer exist.”

As we saw with Manchin-Toomey, some Dems are reluctant to embrace gun safety because they believe voters are more conservative on the issue than they actually are, but Virginia in particular showed Dems can embrace it — and other liberal positions, too — and live to tell the tale.

What else?

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