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Dems, Obama, head into 2014 distant, determined

November 28, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) — Many Democrats in Congress worried about the party’s re-election prospects are for the first time distancing themselves from President Barack Obama after the disastrous rollout of his health care overhaul.

At issue, said several Obama allies, is a loss of trust in the president after only 106,000 people — instead of an anticipated half million — were able to buy insurance coverage the first month of the new “Obamacare” websites, which were crippled by technical glitches and froze computer screens across America. In addition, some 4.2 million Americans received notices from insurers that policies Obama had promised they could keep were being canceled.

The debacle has marked a stunningly swift downturn in the fortunes of the Democrats. Just six weeks ago, the party had emerged at the top of its game from a government shutdown that a majority of Americans had blamed on the Republicans and their ill-fated attempt to derail the health care program, which is intended to extend affordable insurance to millions of Americans who lack it. Republicans say taxes and penalties associated with the law are hurting businesses and jobs.

The political stakes are huge ahead of congressional elections next year. Already, Republicans are launching a drive to link virtually every congressional Democrat to the troubles of the 3-year-old health law, Obama’s most significant domestic policy achievement. In the House, it’s about denying Democrats the 17-seat gain they would need to win back the majority. In the Senate, it’s about gaining the six seats Republicans need to take control of that chamber.

“Folks are now, I think in talking to members, more cautious with regard to dealing with the president,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, who has been the White House’s biggest defender in the Republican-controlled House Oversight Committee, which has waged a war against the Obama administration on health care and other issues.

Cummings said he still thinks Obama is operating with integrity, but he noted that not all his Democratic colleagues agree.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, like Cummings, a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus who personally likes Obama, struggled to describe the state of play between congressional Democrats and the president.

“I am trying to think if you can call it a relationship at this point,” he said.

Clay said the administration is now obligated to “fix it, fix all of it” after Obama apologized this month for both the insurance website problems and his earlier promises that people could keep their old polices. Otherwise, he said, “a wide brush will be used to paint us all as incompetent and ineffective.”

Obama is now allowing insurance companies to reissue their canceled policies for another year. But “Obamacare’s” problems have left Democrats vulnerable to an orchestrated assault by Republicans.

The political body language tells the story of the strain. Thirty-nine House Democrats in Obama’s party defied the president’s veto threat and voted for a Republican-sponsored bill to permit the sale of individual health coverage that falls short of requirements in the law.

In the Senate, several Democrats from battleground states have signed onto legislation to further weaken the health care law. Sponsored by Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who’s facing a tough re-election challenge, the bill would require insurance companies to permanently continue selling policies that the law deems substandard. Landrieu herself skipped an event with Obama earlier this month when he appeared at the Port of New Orleans. She said she had a long-standing engagement elsewhere in the state, which Obama lost last year by 17 points.

Repairing the relationship between Obama and his allies may be as complex as fixing the website and health care law. Much rests on rebuilding trust with the public, a solid majority of which now opposes “Obamacare,” according to multiple polls. Both parties will be watching on Saturday to see whether the vast majority of those who try to sign up for policies on the website will succeed, as Obama has promised. Democrats have urged the administration to quit setting “red lines,” like the Nov. 30 deadline, that carry the risk of being broken.

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Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman and Jennifer Agiesta, AP’s director of polling, contributed to this report.

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