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Hearing On Keeps Obamacare Politics Alive


Today's hearing may not have cleared up many questions about exactly what's wrong with the health care website, but it does represent a new chapter in the political fight over the Affordable Care Act.

Joining us now is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. And, Mara, just after Republicans failed in their efforts to defund or delay the health care law through budget fights, the program's right back in the spotlight. Where does the political debate stand?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, this is much better ground for Republicans to fight Obamacare on because this is about having oversight hearings. Oversight is one of the most basic fundamental functions of the Congress. So the White House can't blame Republicans for the problems it's been having with the website, and implementing Obamacare is absolutely key. They have to get enough young, healthy people to sign up by the end of March in order to make this thing work or else it will collapse of its own weight. So this is a big problem and even Democrats are nervous.

CORNISH: Yeah. Unlike the budget fights where Democrats were united on this, some Democrats have joined the call urging the White House to extend the open enrollment period because of the problems. Will that actually happen?

LIASSON: Well, I don't think it's going to be extended very long. A lot of Democrats, a group of them who are up in 2014, who are vulnerable, have been calling for an extension of the open enrollment period. Of course, Republicans have been calling for an extension of the individual mandate for a long time. But what did happen yesterday is the White House made a tweak in the enrollment rules. The enrollment period ends on March 31st. Now, people will have all the way up until March 31st to purchase insurance.

They don't necessarily have to have it. You have to have ordered the product from Amazon. It doesn't have to be delivered to your door. And earlier, it was February 15th when that happened. So they've added six weeks to the - in effect, to the open enrollment period.

CORNISH: And other than President Obama expressing his own frustration, how is the White House handling this latest crisis?

LIASSON: Well, first, they were really in a defensive crouch but they have moved to a point somebody who will be in charge of this whole fix. He's Jeffrey Zients. He's former acting OMB chair. He is - at the moment, nobody is being fired. No heads are rolling. Their folks start getting the problems fixed. But CMS, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services - you heard Ailsa talk about them - they have started to have a daily briefing. They had the first one today. So they're trying, at least, to be a little bit more transparent.

CORNISH: And did that Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services briefing shed any light on what the problem actually was?

LIASSON: Well, no. I mean, they did admit they should've tested more, they should've tested earlier. But they couldn't give the simple explanation of what actually went wrong. So, for journalists who are looking for the guy with the flat top and the pocket protector to come out and put in layman's terms what is the technical problem, we still haven't heard that yet.

CORNISH: So let's look to next year and the midterm elections. What are the potential effects this could have on that?

LIASSON: Well, this - it's a long way away, but I think we will know in a few months whether these technical problems have been fixed or not. And if they're not, I think it could be a huge problem for Democrats. Already, Republicans are running radio ads about this. But, you know, recently, after the shutdown, a lot of handicappers had adjusted their predictions downward for Republican gains in 2014. Those could be reversed if these problems with the health care website don't get fixed.

CORNISH: And, Mara, have there been any Republicans out there saying, hey, maybe we shouldn't have had those budget fights, right? We could've just waited for the health care program to have problems on its own.

LIASSON: Oh, absolutely. There are many, many of them. I mean, that's the great irony of this. All these problems would've gotten much more attention earlier if we hadn't been consumed with the two and a half weeks of the government being shut down.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.