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Health care sign-ups surge _ will they save Dems?

Wednesday - 4/2/2014, 10:56am  ET

President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 1, 2014, to speak about the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

JOSH LEDERMAN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Mocking his critics, President Barack Obama boasted Tuesday that 7.1 million people have signed up for his health care law, an unexpected comeback after a disastrous rollout sent his poll numbers plummeting and stirred fears among Democrats facing re-election this fall.

"The debate over repealing this law is over," he declared.

Despite lingering problems with the website, a late wave of enrollments pushed sign-ups higher than critics and even the White House had believed possible. Still, the administration hasn't determined how many of those people have closed the deal by paying their first month's premiums. Also unclear is how many were previously uninsured -- the real test of Obama's health care overhaul. The law also expanded coverage for low-income people through Medicaid, but only about half of the states have agreed to implement that option.

The administration also hasn't yet released an updated demographic breakdown of enrollees, such as the number of younger people whose participation is critical to the law's success.

The late enrollment surge may do little to change the political dynamics heading into the midterm elections, particularly for Democrats running in conservative states where the health law and the president himself remain deeply unpopular. Even Obama's advisers acknowledge that the public's views on the law are unlikely to shift significantly between now and November.

Still, with millions of people now receiving health benefits under the law, Democrats see an opportunity to undercut Republicans still pushing to repeal "Obamacare." And GOP lawmakers, wary of overplaying their political hand, are indeed grappling with whether to press forward with repeal or narrow their focus on replacing the law with different health measures.

In a preview of his party's midterm messaging, Obama declared that while the health law isn't perfect, "the Affordable Care Act is here to stay."

"Why are folks working so hard for people to not have health insurance? Why are they so mad about the idea of people having health insurance?" he asked a group of administration officials and supportive members of Congress in the White House Rose Garden.

Underscoring his point, Obama quoted from letters he said he had received from people helped by the law. But Republicans responded in a new round of their own quotes from people complaining about rapidly rising rates.

"The band may be playing in the White House, but hearts aren't light for Americans struggling to afford Obamacare's higher costs," said a release from the Senate Republican Communications Center.

The president's remarks amounted to a victory lap for an administration that botched the start of the long-planned enrollment period for the insurance marketplaces at the center of the landmark law. The enrollment website was riddled with technical problems, and a flurry of private policy cancellations forced Obama to recant his pledge that Americans who liked their health insurance plans could keep them.

The Congressional Budget Office had originally estimated that 7 million people would enroll in the health exchanges this year, the CBO lowered those expectations to 6 million due to the website woes. Even inside the White House, that first estimate looked out of reach until recently.

Politically, the law has created huge headaches for some Democrats facing re-election in November, helping to wipe away the party's prospects for taking control of the House and putting its Senate majority in jeopardy.

Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said the politics behind Obamacare will shift as more Americans feel personally invested in the overhaul -- either because they're getting care through the exchanges, staying on their parents' plans or benefiting from patient protections.

Still, he said the law is likely to remain unpopular in states where Democrats are fighting many of their toughest races, including Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska. White House officials have encouraged candidates from those states to emphasize their eagerness to fix parts of the law that aren't working rather than shy away from the measure as a whole.

One senator who appears to be following that blueprint is Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat facing a difficult re-election fight. Landrieu said of the law on Tuesday: "I continue to push to make it work even better."

Most public polling shows the law's opponents outnumber supporters, and nearly all surveys show it attracts few backers outside the ranks of the Democratic Party. For example, just 3 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of independents said they backed it in the latest AP-GfK poll. Democrats have also lost their advantage as the party more trusted to handle health care.

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