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November 7, 2013

President meets with Senate Dems on health care

WASHINGTON — Senators from President Barack Obama’s own party pressed him in person on Wednesday to extend the enrollment deadline for Americans to sign up for health insurance because of the malfunctioning website.

Obama invited Senate Democrats facing re-election next year to the White House to discuss the problem-plagued health care rollout that could affect their races. The White House confirmed Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with 16 senators to describe fixes that are being made to the website for Americans to sign up for insurance under his signature health care law.

“The rollout of HealthCare.gov has not been smooth — to say the least — and I shared the concerns of Coloradans directly with the president,” Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said in a statement. “Consumers should have the time they need to shop for a plan and enroll after the widespread problems with the website are fixed.”

But White House press secretary Jay Carney rejected the idea of an extension of the March 31 deadline for Americans to get insurance or face a fine. “We still believe that there is time available to make the necessary improvements to the website and to use all the other means that we can to get the information to the American people who want to enroll in time for them to do it,” Carney told reporters.

Another Democrat, Sen. Mark Pryor, said he told Obama and Biden to “fix the website immediately,” address problems with the law and hold accountable those at fault for the mistakes.

“I won’t let up until these problems are fixed,” said Pryor, who faces a difficult re-election next year in conservative-leaning Arkansas.

The meeting with Democratic senators, which was not listed on the president’s public schedule, lasted about two hours and also included White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and Jeff Zients, the president’s troubleshooter for the website. Such a dedication of time by so many top-level officials reflects concern for the political fallout the problems could inflict.

“Nobody in the room, including the president, thinks this rollout has gone well and he expressed that sentiment several times,” Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico told The Associated Press. Udall said senators were “respectful but concerned” about how the many problems they are hearing from constituents are going to be solved.

“The two messages delivered to the White House are we must ensure no one is punished for problems with HealthCare.gov and we need to make sure the enrollment deadline gives everyone enough time.”

Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, said Obama “didn’t hesitate to accept responsibility for the issues that have slowed the law’s implementation and laid out the White House’s strategy for fixing them.”

Sen. Mark Udall said he also encouraged Obama to ensure the security of personal information submitted on the site. The White House said Obama told the senators there is ongoing testing of the site’s security.

Carney denied that Obama is concerned with the politics of health care and simply wants to improve access. But the press secretary noted that Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia governor’s race Tuesday while supporting the law.

“The Republican candidate in that race made his name as an opponent of Obamacare, campaigned on the repeal of Obamacare, and lost,” Carney said. “The Democratic candidate embraced the Affordable Care Act, campaigned on the Affordable Care Act, and won.”

After the meeting, Obama left the White House with Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, chairman of the effort to elect Democrats to the Senate, who attended along with the 2014 incumbents. Obama and Bennet flew together aboard Air Force One to Dallas, where the president planned to encourage Americans to enroll in health care plans and also raise money at two fundraisers for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The White House said other meeting attendees were Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Al Franken of Minnesota, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Warner of Virginia.

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Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

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Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler

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