U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District CTMirror File Photo
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District CTMirror File Photo

Washington – When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Elizabeth Esty has been walking a tightrope.

As a Democrat, Esty is under pressure from her party to support President Obama’s signature law.

But as a Democrat representing Connecticut’s 5th District, Esty is also pressed to distance herself from some of the most unpopular aspects of the law, and she has riled both Democratic supporters, who say Esty has betrayed them, and GOP opponents, who are eager to wrap her in the controversial law.

But some analysts say that Esty’s careful footwork may help her get re-elected in November.

“Her votes were very strategic and very smart,” said Gary Rose, head of the political science Department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. “They could save her and could secure her a second term.”

But there’s also political danger for Esty in straying too far from her party.

As a freshman member of Congress, Esty was not in office in 2010 when Congress took a nearly totally party-line vote to approve the Affordable Care Act – Joseph Cao, a one-term House member from New Orleans, was the only Republican to support it. Since then, the GOP’s No. 1 political mission has been to repeal or at least gut the bill.

Asked if she would have voted for the ACA, Esty told the CT Mirror, “I think I would have, but does that matter? What matters now is getting health care for the people of Connecticut.”

House Republicans have voted more than 40 times to repeal the ACA or dismantle parts of it. Esty is among a group of Democrats, most of them in tough races this year, who voted with Republicans on some of those measures.

In the end, those votes are meaningless because the Senate, led by Democrats, has largely ignored the anti-ACA campaign. The votes were taken largely to “message” constituents about a lawmaker’s position on the ACA.

“One thing about … Obamacare votes in the House — all they are is posturing,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

One Republican measure was particularly popular with a public that was angry at President Obama for promising that, under the ACA, they could keep their old insurance plans if they liked them. But insurers canceled millions of these plans, saying they did not fit the ACA’s “grandfathering” rules.

A contrite Obama offered an administrative fix that would have allowed insurers to keep customers covered on their old policies, but insurers and most state insurance regulators rejected the proposal.

So House Republicans offered a bill, the Keep Your Health Plan Act, that would have allowed insurers to continue to offer non-ACA compliant policies for another year. Unlike in the president’s proposal, the old insurance plans could have been sold to new customers. Thirty-nine Democrats — including Esty — joined most Republicans in backing the bill, even though Obama said he’d veto it. Esty said she was responding to the concerns of constituents about the cancellations.

“When the Keep Your Health Plan Act passed, everyone knew that it wasn’t going to be signed by Obama, or even pass the Senate. So it was essentially a free vote, and a number of Democrats, including Esty, probably thought it was politically better for her to vote for it than against it,” Kondik said. “Perhaps she and other Democrats would have voted differently if the bill actually had a chance of becoming law, but only they know that.”

Esty says her votes are “nuanced,” and that Obamacare needs some “tweaks and changes” to reassure people about the ACA.

In fact, Esty said, she was able to persuade the White House to clarify the bill to “avoid an unintended consequence” that would have hurt some of her constituents.

She said she was contacted by several fire chiefs in her district, including the one from her hometown of Cheshire, who were concerned about the ACA’s mandate that large businesses cover their workers would force local firehouses to provide volunteer firefighters with health insurance.

“We called the White House, we called the IRS, and in a matter of days it was fixed,” Esty said. “That’s the sort of fine-grained but important tweaking the law needs.”

But some liberals, including the group MoveOn.org, were furious at Esty’s split from the Democratic Party on the Affordable Care Act.

Ilya Scheyman, executive director for MoveOn.org political action, said the frustration felt by progressives about Esty’s votes, especially the one supporting a delay in the individual mandate, was justified.

“Voters have a right to express their anger. This wasn’t a good faith effort to provide improved health care,” he said. “This was an  explicit attempt by Republicans to undermine the law.”

Sheyman said, “This isn’t to say members of Congress will lose seats over an (ACA) vote,” but he warned, “Esty will want to see her base turn out this November to knock on doors.”

“The question is. ‘Are (progressives) going to be energized for her?’ ” he asked.

Besides voting for the Keep Your Health Plan Act, Esty voted earlier this month for GOP legislation that would require the federal website used by 36 states to adopt new security measures for the HealthCare.gov site to protect personal information for people signing up for health insurance. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, was also among the 67 Democrats who voted for the bill.

“I voted it for it, not because there was a breach, but the concern was to reassure people,” Esty said.

Individual mandate vote

But it was Esty’s vote last July on a Republican proposal to postpone the individual mandate, the requirement that most Americans have health insurance this year, that really upset liberals.

Days earlier, Obama had used his authority to postpone the requirement that large businesses cover their workers. But a delay in the individual mandate – which insurers hope will prod the young and healthy to buy insurance and improve risk pools – was considered a death blow to the Affordable Care Act.

Esty said she heard last summer that there might be problems with the rollout of the ACA. Obama and key federal officials said they didn’t know about glitches with the Healthcare.gov until its dismal launch Oct. 1. Esty also said she was concerned the president had deacided to delay the business mandate and thought individuals should be offered the same break. Once again, Esty said she was responding to concerns from constituents.

“It seems to me appropriate to make that vote in July,” she said.

Obama has pushed back the deadline for enrollment – it is now March 31 – in response to the severe problems that plagued HealthCare.gov.

The operation of the site has also improved dramatically.

Esty declined to say she had second thoughts about her vote to delay the mandate.

“This program is up and running. I am strongly behind the law,” she said.

Just before Congress went on its Martin Luther King Jr. holiday recess this month, House Republicans made another attempt to alter the ACA with legislation that would require all health care exchanges to submit weekly reports on their operations. Thirty-three Democrats voted for the bill, but not Esty or any other member of the Connecticut House delegation.

Esty said the bill was introduced “in bad faith” and was “unduly burdensome.”

As a freshman member of Congress, Esty is probably at the most vulnerable point in her congressional career, said Rose of Sacred Heart University, especially since she’s seeking re-election during a midterm election when voters who show up at the polls tend to be more conservative.

“It’s going to be a lower voter turnout year and a “white electorate,” Rose said, meaning the number of minority voters who turned out two years ago to vote for Obama – and helped Esty win her race against Republican Andrew Roraback — are expected to decline this year.

It’s also Obama’s  sixth year in office — a low point in popularity for most presidents. That’s likely to hurt other Democrats like Esty, especially if they are running in swing districts like the 5th.

“Elizabeth knows that in a president’s sixth year in office, there is a reaction to his policies,” Rose said. “It’s going to be in many ways an anti-Obama election.”

The Republican strategy to defeat Esty is to tie her to the Affordable Care Act.

After her vote for the Keep Your Health Plan Act, Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. released a statement saying, “It looks like Elizabeth Esty now wants voters to think she stands opposed to this harmful law, but does she really?”

“Has Elizabeth Esty changed her mind on the President’s healthcare plan? Was she for it before she was against it? Or was this just a political stunt to pander to voters ahead of an election year? The thousands of Connecticut families who have lost their healthcare deserve answers,” Labriola’s statement said.

Meanwhile, Mark Greenberg, a Republican opponent of Esty’s, launched a video last week – his first campaign commercial — that said “Obamacare is a disaster” and a government takeover of the nation’s health system.

The video shows Esty pledging to “stand strongly” by the law “with every breath that I have.”

The National Republican Committee and dozens of other opponents of the ACA plan to spend at least half a billion dollars this year in anti-Obamacare ads that target vulnerable Democrats.

But the attacks could lose their punch if voters warm to the ACA’s benefits, Rose said.

“If people are very pleased with it, it could make a difference, but that’s a big ‘if,’” he said.

On the other hand, if Esty moves too far away from the party line on the ACA, “it would not be a surprise to see a challenger from her own party” in the near future, Rose said.

Kondrak is more optimistic about Esty’s political chances.

“Esty’s district went 54 percent for Obama in 2012, which makes it more Democratic than the country as a whole but somewhat competitive,” he said. “Still, Esty was able to beat a really solid Republican candidate in 2012, Andrew Roraback, and it’s unclear how strong of a challenger she is facing this year. We rate this race “Likely Democratic” at the moment.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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