By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chaotic launch of President Barack Obama's healthcare law has Democrats in Congress increasingly anxious about its potential impact on them in the 2014 elections and scrambling to protect themselves if the program's problems persist.
Particularly nervous is a group of 16 Senate Democrats who are defending their seats next year, as Republicans will seek a net gain of six seats to try to take over the 100-seat chamber.
Some of the Democrats, such as New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen, represent states where enthusiasm has been high for the Affordable Care Act. Among other things, the law aims to provide inexpensive health insurance to many of the estimated 15 million Americans with little or no coverage.
Others, such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, represent conservative states where skepticism has been fueled by Republican attack ads discouraging participation.
The balky website, HealthCare.gov, has been unable to process an untold number of applications for insurance since its debut on October 1, and the frustration both types of Democrats have had with it was evident on Thursday.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was summoned to the Capitol for a closed-door meeting with all Senate Democrats and peppered with "tough and pointed" questions about the program, one Senate Democratic leadership aide said.
The senators told McDonough that they wanted to see more progress in getting the site working efficiently, and that the administration had to do a better job of communicating its successes and failures in implementing the biggest legislative achievement of Obama's presidency.
Telephone calls and letters from disappointed constituents began pouring into Shaheen's offices almost immediately after enrollment in Obamacare began with a thud last month, when it immediately became clear that navigating HealthCare.gov was vexed.
Administration officials have said most of the site's problems will be fixed by November 30.
Even so, Shaheen gathered nine other Democratic senators to encourage the White House to extend the initial enrollment period beyond March 31.
"The rollout of the new law was a disaster. The administration had three years to prepare," Shaheen told Reuters. "They clearly dropped the ball."
The senator is feeling pressure from voters partly because she was a vocal advocate of the healthcare law, which could help about 130,000 uninsured people in her tiny state, as well as many others who have insurance that does not cover preexisting health conditions or that has significant limits on benefits.
Shaheen is widely seen as having a strong chance of winning a second six-year term next year. But several other Senate Democrats running for reelection, including Pryor and Landrieu, are likely to face tough challenges from conservative Republicans.
Obamacare's stumbles are a particular problem for them as they defend a landmark law they helped write and still believe in.
LIMITING THE DOWNSIDE
Several Democrats have offered proposals that could be rushed onto the Senate floor if computer wizards cannot make the healthcare site more functional within the next month - and if a controversy does not die down over revelations that some people will lose health insurance plans they like, despite Obama's earlier assurances to the contrary.
Landrieu said Wednesday that she was crafting a bill to allow anyone who is satisfied with their current insurance to retain it.
Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat who is not up for reelection next year but whose state is increasingly trending Republican, has called for a one-year delay in requiring individuals to sign up for health insurance, echoing arguments made by many Republican lawmakers.
Of the 10 Senate Democrats urging an extension of the March 31 deadline for people to sign up or face a penalty, seven, including Shaheen, face reelection next year.
"The fundamental reason for doing the Affordable Care Act continues to exist," Shaheen said. "Prices for health insurance were going up at a rate that was increasingly unaffordable. Too many were not able to get health insurance."
But the snafus have raised her and other Democrats' political antennae.
If "getting too far out on a limb" for Obamacare started to feel risky and the limb began to crack, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, Shaheen is "going to get closer to the trunk of the tree.
"That's what we're seeing" in the proposal to extend the Obamacare enrollment deadline, Scala said. While looking out for her constituency, "I think she's trying to limit her personal downside," too.
The frustration among Democrats is also evident in the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives. They are not likely to win enough votes to take over the 435-seat chamber, where the Republican majority has voted more than 40 times to repeal Obamacare, claiming it will destroy jobs and raise medical costs.
Some Democrats describe feeling let down by the administrative shortcomings.
Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland told Reuters that he offered some firm advice to Obama during a recent meeting.
"I think what the president has to do (is) ... own the problem," Cummings said. "Then he's got to say, step-by-step, exactly how it's being fixed and what kind of progress is being made."
For now, the Democrats are mostly stuck in a wait-and-see mode, hoping the administration meets its self-imposed November 30 deadline for eliminating the website's glitches.
"If the Obama administration fixes it and people start signing up, then we're in a good spot," said a Senate Democratic aide, "and you won't see much of a liability" from the messy rollout. If they don't, "then we're going to have trouble" heading into the 2014 elections.
Democratic lawmakers have indicated it is increasingly urgent that people in their states begin to see benefits from Obamacare soon, or else the situation will feed critics' claims that the program is a failure.
Pryor is the only remaining Democrat in the congressional delegation representing Arkansas, where Obama was trounced by Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential election last year.
During an interview with Reuters, he said misperceptions about Obamacare dominate many of his conversations with constituents. Some people didn't like it, but "others who have looked at the (costs) ... are actually pleased."
He said some voters have been led to believe that the government itself is selling insurance, rather than arranging for the sale of coverage from private carriers, with government subsidies reducing costs for those with lower incomes.
By the November 2014 elections, people will have had about a year's worth of experience with Obamacare, Pryor said. He cited private studies projecting that the law will help rural hospitals and the overall economy in Arkansas.
Republicans see an opposite scenario, one they say will boost their election chances next year.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which strives to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives, is targeting seven seats held by Democrats who represent districts that have voted for Republicans in the last three presidential elections.
Several of those Democrats proudly voted for the healthcare act, said spokeswoman Andrea Bozek. "Now it's time for them to be accountable for the failures of this law."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Prudence Crowther)