WASHINGTON — President Obama sought to calm jittery Democrats on Wednesday as they prepared to head home to face voters, assuring them they are “on the right side of history” despite problems with the launch of his massive health care overhaul and an immigration fight with Republicans.
In back-to-back closed sessions with House and Senate Democrats, Obama delivered his message about economic prosperity and expanding the middle class. But in return he was confronted with questions from Democrats who are nervous about implementation of the health care law as they look ahead to town hall meetings during the August recess — and to midterm elections next year.
The meetings at the Capitol offered a rare chance for the party’s rank and file to press the president about budget talks with Republicans, the next Federal Reserve chairman, and jobs projects, as well as to appeal to him for help in next year’s campaigns. In a lighter moment, House Democrats presented Obama with a birthday cake. He turns 52 Sunday.
The White House is seeking to keep up enthusiasm among Democrats following a rough start to Obama’s second term.
He has gained an agreement in the Senate to get at least some long-blocked nominees confirmed, and the Senate has passed its version of sweeping immigration legislation. But the immigration overhaul faces a deeply uncertain future in the Republican-led House, where many in the GOP oppose a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Obama’s landmark health care law continues to baffle many Americans, and the administration failed to assuage the public when it announced this month it would delay a major provision requiring employers to provide coverage, due to concerns about complexity.
While major provisions of the overall bill kick in Jan. 1, uninsured people can start shopping for health plans on Oct. 1, and some Democrats are wary of the system being ready. Representative Carol Shea- Porter of New Hampshire said that in her state there is not enough competition because only one company had entered the health care exchange.
Obama told House Democrats they “are on the right side of these issues and the right side of history in terms of providing health care to Americans and to ultimately finding comprehensive immigration reform,” said Representative Janice Hahn of California.
Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky said, “I just think he was trying to bolster the courage of the group.”
Obama spoke about his administration’s roll-out plans for health care exchanges, which could be critical to the health care law’s success or failure.
Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, said Obama told senators not to be defensive in discussing the law.
“He said we have to remind people that a lot of good things are happening,” King told reporters after the senators-only meeting. King listed several of what he said are the law’s accomplishments, such as children being able to use their parent’s insurance until age 26 and reduced costs for drugs.
King said there needs to be more emphasis on explaining what the health care law really means to Americans because of repeated attempts by House Republicans “to essentially sabotage it and frighten people.”
The sessions came just days before lawmakers leave the capital for a six-week recess and the prospect of facing constituents back home, at town halls at a time when polls show Congress being held in low regard.
“We have a positive, forceful message, and the Republicans, all they can talk about is repealing Obamacare as if that is the answer to our prayers,” said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “They’re just wrong.”
Durbin made clear that Democrats had no intention of allowing a repeat of the congressional recess in August 2010, when loud opposition to the Affordable Care Act propelled the GOP takeover of the House in that year’s elections.
“We’re not going to leave a void here,” Durbin told reporters. “We’re going to fill this [recess] with our message, and we’re going to do it in a very forceful, positive way.”
In the Senate session, Obama declared that he would not negotiate with Republicans on raising the nation’s borrowing authority and risk a repeat of the 2011 budget showdown.
“He also made clear that we need to sit down and work together on these issues and that there’s certain points that he will insist upon,” said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.