WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Tuesday said it had no plans to abandon the controversial individual mandate in the president's signature health care law despite the challenges the provision faces in courts and its eroding support in Congress.
In his daily briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs showed no enthusiasm for talk of swapping the mandate -- which, once phased in, will require individuals to obtain health insurance or face fines -- for separate, less onerous, language.
"I think if we thought there was a better way of doing it, we would have gone that way," Gibbs said.
"The president supports it," the press secretary said of the mandate. "We have gone to court to maintain it. And, as the president has said, we will work with those who want to see improvements in this law regardless of party. But we believe that individual responsibility is a foundation."
Gibbs' comments were a bit of unexpected defiance from a White House under siege over its sales job on health care reform. But they also underscore just how much the president -- once a critic of the individual mandate -- has come to see the provision as a linchpin to the legislation.
He's not necessarily alone. In private, aides on the Hill say there is little chance that a Democratic-run Senate will consider a legislative alternative to the mandate, at least while the White House forcefully defends its constitutionality and import in various courts. Meanwhile, operatives off the Hill -- especially those allied with the Obama White House -- have taken up the task of defending the provision on intellectual grounds.
On Wednesday, the Center for American Progress is slated to release a report from MIT professor Jonathan Gruber -- one of the brains behind the health care law -- that will show that alternatives to the mandate "will not cover as many or save as much money as the Affordable Care Act."
All of which may seem counterintuitive to the current tone of the political debate. Support for replacing or eliminating the mandate has been building outside of conservative circles for months, not just among moderate Democrats but among self-identified progressives as well. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean predicted that the provision would be removed from the bill before 2014, when the penalties are scheduled to take effect.
On Tuesday morning, Politico reported that a "handful of moderate Senate Democrats" were "looking for ways to roll back the highly contentious individual mandate." The piece caused a bit of stir, as it was interpreted as a "sign that red-state senators are prepared to assert their independence ahead of the 2012 elections."
But the senators cited in the piece have all been critical of the mandate well before this week.
An aide to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of the four senators named by Politico, said, "The comments that Senator McCaskill is quoted as saying in Politico are things she has... been saying for a while." The aide added, "Suffice to say, this isn't new for her."
And, perhaps more significantly, despite the chatter there currently exists no serious legislative alternative for Republicans and Democrats to push.
"I'm not sure there is any serious legislation at this time," said the McCaskill aide. "It seems to me a lot of to-do, and a bit of nothing."
Added Jake Thompson, a spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), perhaps the loudest Democratic critic of the provision in the Senate: "For months, Senator Nelson has been pursuing alternatives to the individual mandate ... There is no coordination at this point. What he is hoping for is a good alternative to the individual mandate. That is all somewhat down the road. He doesn't have details of a viable alternative at this point."