He added: “What we did is we muddle[d] through and we got a system that is complex, convoluted, needs probably some corrections and still rewards the insurance companies extensively."
Harkin stressed that key components of the law were necessary and important, including protections for people with pre-existing conditions and allowing grown children to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies until age 26.
But looking back at the early years of the Obama administration, Harkin said Democrats should have pursued “single-payer right from the get-go or at least put a public option. … We had the votes to do that and we blew it."
Such comments aren't exactly new from Harkin, who has spoken about the ACA with critical optimism in the past. “I like to think of this bill as like a starter home. It is not the mansion of our dreams. But it has a solid foundation ... [and] plenty of room for additions and improvements,” he wrote in the Huffington Post in 2010.
As the veteran lawmaker prepares for retirement at the end of the month, Harkin's unfavorable appraisal of the ACA highlights the extent to which Democrats are distancing themselves from the law five years after it was signed by President Obama.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who has publicly supported the law in the past, also spoke out against it in November during a speech at the National Press Club. Schumer faulted congressional leaders and the Obama administration for focusing on health-care reform instead of economic issues during the president's first years in office.
"After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle-class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus," he said. "But unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem — health-care reform."
Indeed, Democrats locked in tight reelection campaigns during the 2014 cycle went to great lengths to downplay their involvement with the ACA. Nearly all of those Democrats lost their seats in November in a GOP wave largely motivated by anti-Obama sentiment.
Harkin — chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — didn't speak directly to the electoral consequences the bill may have had, but he did take issue with the compromises made as the bill was being negotiated.
“There’s this old saying: ‘If you have the votes, vote. If you don’t, talk.’ We had the votes but we talked,” he said.