The House approved a plan Friday permitting health insurance companies to continue selling policies that do not comply with the health-care law, a proposal that would allow more Americans to keep their current health plans while significantly weakening part of the Affordable Care Act.
Critics charged that the measure undercuts the central premise of the new law, but supporters said their plan fulfills President Obama's broken promise that Americans could continue with their current health coverage if they wish.
The "Keep Your Health Plan Act" passed overwhelmingly with 39 Democrats joining with Republicans to approve the measure. Four Republicans voted no on the measure.
The proposal was drafted by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) after millions of Americans began receiving notices that they would lose current health plans because of the new law — a violation of Obama's stated promise. Co-sponsors included more than 80 Republicans and three Democrats — Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Patrick Murphy (Fla.) — who represent swing districts and face difficult reelection contests next year.
Murphy is a first-year lawmaker who won a slim victory in a district packed with seniors sensitive to any changes to federal entitlement programs. He said Friday that he supports administrative fixes to the law announced by President Obama on Thursday but that they probably don't go far enough to quell the fears of his constituents.
Murphy told reporters that in the days before Obama announced his new plan, "There had been no proposal from the administration on what they were going to do to fix it, I wasn’t satisfied with their answers, and the Upton bill was a step in the right direction to ensuring that people who were promised their health care plans could keep them."
Democratic leaders sensitive to widespread defections dispatched several senior aides in the hours before the vote. Several aides were seen and heard talking about the vote in the hallways outside the House Chamber with Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) and Dan Maffiei (D-N.Y.), two other freshmen who won tight races last year. Ultimately, Schneider and Maffei voted yes.
Despite the defectors, most Democrats believe that the Upton bill fundamentally guts the ACA by allowing plans not compliant with the new law to continue. In the past 24 hours, they rallied behind Obama's administrative fixes and a Democratic alternative introduced Friday that would let people keep their current health-care plans for another year while requiring insurers to provide information on new plans that meet the law’s stricter requirements. The proposal mirrors a measure introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of several moderate Democrats facing difficult reelection contests next year.
In a sign of the anger and frustration exhibited among Democrats this week, even Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) — a passionate defender of the new law — suggested Friday that the Obama administration waited too long to address administrative fixes to the law and put too many Democrats at political risk.
"[The White House] knew very well that they had to give us something different to support because simply stone-walling about the president’s promise and why it wasn’t kept was not going to be an option," he said.
But Cartwright said Obama's administrative fix "has given us something else to get behind. It’s not perfect, but it’s something, and more than anything it’s an acknowledgment that a promise was made and we like to honor our promises.”
Friday's votes capped a difficult week for congressional Democrats, who generally split between liberals eager to see the new law work and members from swing districts where health-care reform could be a dominant campaign issue for the third consecutive political cycle.
The 39 Democratic votes in favor of the bill represents by far the largest defection on a major or closely-watched piece of legislation this year.
Signaling the dissatisfaction among Democrats, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who also voted for the bill, said the Obama administration would earn "an F-minus" for its roll-out of the new law. Problems with the law are solvable, but the new law is playing "very bad" in his district, which makes him "disgusted," he said.
"I think heads should roll downtown," he added in reference to the White House and offices of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Sensing the political trouble for his party, Obama used a rambling news conference Thursday to apologize on behalf of dozens of Democratic lawmakers who repeated similar assurances to voters in recent years about being able to keep current health plans.
Jeff Simon contributed to this report.