November 15, 2013

KIMBERLEY STRASSEL: The President’s ObamaCare Backpedal: His proposal to allow people to keep their health plans will not provide a political escape hatch for beleaguered congressional Democrats.

Mr. Obama took to the podium in the White House briefing room to explain that yes, some Americans may indeed now keep the health-care plans they like. Maybe. If insurers can undo three years of work in a few weeks. If state regulators can move at similar lightning speed. So long as the old plans come with new warning labels. And with the understanding that those Americans lucky enough to receive a renewal option can only keep the plans they “like” for a further year. Those giant caveats aside, the president wishes you good fortune.

This small turnabout was nonetheless a humiliating concession for Mr. Obama, whose press secretary, Jay Carney, only a few days ago was ripping the idea of allowing insurers to continue selling “substandard” plans. His hand was forced by a growing mob of congressional Democrats who are getting slammed over cancellations, and who threatened revolt if the administration didn’t act.

The primary purpose of the White House “fix” was to get out ahead of the planned Friday vote on Michigan Republican Fred Upton’s “Keep Your Health Plan Act.” The stage was set for dozens of Democrats to join with the GOP for passage—potentially creating a veto-proof majority, and putting enormous pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to follow suit.

The White House couldn’t risk such a bipartisan rebuke. Moreover, the Upton bill—while it lacks those GOP joy words of “delay” or “repeal”—poses a threat, since it would allow insurers to continue providing non-ObamaCare policies to any American who wants one. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s version of the bill would in fact (unconstitutionally) order insurers to offer the plans in perpetuity. Both bills undermine the law’s central goal of forcing healthy people into costly ObamaCare exchange plans that subsidize the sick.

The president’s “fix” is designed to limit such grandfathering, but that’s why it is of dubious political help to Democrats. Within minutes of Mr. Obama’s announcement, several Democratic senators, including North Carolina’s Kay Hagan —whose poll numbers have plummeted in advance of her 2014 re-election bid—announced that they remain in favor of Landrieu-style legislation.

And the White House “fix” doesn’t save Democrats from having to take a vote on the Upton bill. A yes vote is a strike at the president and an admission that the law Democrats passed is failing. A no vote is tailor-made for political attack ads and requires a nuanced explanation of why the president’s “fix” is better than Upton’s. Which it isn’t.

I have to confess, I’m kind of enjoying this.