WASHINGTON -- More than a dozen Senate Democrats, all up for reelection next year, met privately with President Barack Obama on Wednesday to vent frustration with problems plaguing the Obamacare website.
The meeting, which wasn't on the president's public schedule, lasted for two hours and sparked unusually blunt statements from attendees afterward. Even stalwart liberals expressed disappointment.
“I am very frustrated with the rollout of the exchanges," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). "The dysfunction and delays are unacceptable. After meeting with the president today, I remain deeply convinced that this is a 'show-me' moment. This will not be resolved until Americans can, day after day, sign on to the health marketplace, review their options, and complete their applications."
Neither Senate nor administration sources would say who called for the meeting to take place. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Thursday met with Senate Democrats on the Hill, where Wednesday's get-together was likely conceived.
According to a source briefed on Wednesday's discussion, the president and his team assured the senators that they were fixing the glitches that have plagued the website since its Oct. 1 launch.
"We are committed to do this by the end of November and we are on track," was how one source described the general message.
Separately, a White House official told The Huffington Post that the president told Senate Democrats that he shares their frustration. The official added that Obama was concerned that the website's problems "are obscuring the benefits under the Affordable Care Act that are available to millions of people across the country."
After the meeting, Obama travelled to Dallas to spotlight the need for expanded health care coverage and to attend fundraisers for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That he first spent time first soothing the concerns of senators up for reelection -- including the senator who heads the DSCC, Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) -- underscores the extent of the party's anxieties over the Obamacare rollout.
The president appeared to spend some alone time with Bennet in the Oval Office after the group's meeting. News pool reports described the two walking out of the office “in animated conversation” as they boarded the Marine One helicopter together en route to Texas.
One top Democratic Party source, speaking to The Huffington Post on condition of anonymity, said there was no point in trying to disguise the purpose of the Wednesday afternoon confab.
"I think it goes without saying that senators have voiced frustration with the administration that the implementation has not gone smoothly and they are holding them accountable and want this to be fixed," the source said.
There is no polling yet to indicate how damaging the botched rollout of the health care website -- and news reports of people being forced out of their current insurance plans -- has been for the Democratic Party. One top operative told The Huffington Post the party expects data on that question in the next week or so.
But the swelling of negative press and concerns being raised by constituents are causing some lawmakers to speak out. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said during a hearing last week that she's worried about a “crisis of confidence" in Obamacare. In another hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that he “believe[s] in the law,” but the current situation is “unacceptable.”
After their meeting with the president, several senators who attended echoed concerns.
"It's absolutely unacceptable in this day and age that the administration can't deliver on the promises it made to all Americans because of technical problems with a website," said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). “Alaskans should be appreciating the critical benefits of the Affordable Care Act, but there is an understandable crisis in confidence because the administration has yet to get it off the ground."
Others in the meeting included Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Chris Coons (Del.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Al Franken (Minn.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Tom Udall (N.M.) and Mark Warner (Va.).