WASHINGTON -- Sixteen Senate Democrats met with President Barack Obama on Wednesday to urge that he right his foundering health care website, warning of a "crisis of confidence" if he doesn't act quickly.
The president's team acknowledged struggling with how to present its message to the public, but some senators left the meeting more concerned that there were no immediate fixes forthcoming more than a month after healthcare.gov went live.
With re-election battles looming, fellow Democrats have been left to explain the website failures while hoping that the benefits of the Affordable Care Act are just around the corner.
The frustration was on full display Wednesday as 15 Senate Democrats up for re-election and the senator in charge of their coordinated campaigns urged Obama to get the troubled launch behind him and his party.
"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."
One Senate aide, who asked for anonymity to discuss the private conversation, said it was clear the White House knows it has a "messaging problem," but not that it has "any immediate fixes to it, which was disconcerting."
Obama advisers are fighting a crisis of faith among Democrats as they try to muscle the marketplaces through the rough patch and into widespread use. Already, 11 Senate Democrats have signaled their support for extending the enrollment deadline, a delay that administration officials fear could lead to an unraveling of the larger policy.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough has personally led efforts to reassure balky Democrats, traveling to Capitol Hill and routinely talking with those up for reelection in 2014.
But nervousness remains.
"I am very frustrated with the rollout of the exchanges. The dysfunction and delays are unacceptable," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said after the meeting. "I remain deeply convinced that this is a 'show me' moment. This will not be resolved until Americans can, day after day, sign onto the health marketplace, review their options and complete their applications."
Another Senate Democratic aide, who also was not authorized to comment publicly about the private conversation, described the meeting as "civil."
"The White House understands the situation folks going into re-election are in," the aide said. "It's still a concern."
The chaos surrounding the rocky startup has given ammunition to critics and forced Obama to answer tough questions about his plan, instead of touring the country drawing crowds for health care recruiters. Among the questions is whether he described the program accurately over the last three years when he said people could keep their old plans if they desired. But plans that don't meet the new Obamacare standards are grandfathered in only if they were purchased before the law was signed in 2010.
House Republicans stoked concerns about the grandfather clause Wednesday by announcing the House would vote next week on the "Keep Your Health Plan Act," which would allow insurance plans being offered today to continue into next year.
The bill's author, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., calls it a "voluntary escape hatch" for people who want to keep their old coverage.
After the White House meeting, Obama traveled to Dallas for a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser and to promote health care enrollment. Texas is one of 36 states dependent on the federal website because it has declined to create its own exchange.
Speaking to a crowd at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Obama thanked a group of volunteers for promoting Obamacare even though state Republican leaders aren't doing much to help implement the law.
Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry has refused federal money to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income families. And the state is considering new requirements for recruiters hired under federal grants to help people sign up for Obamacare. A quarter of the state's population is uninsured, the biggest share in the country. That amounts to about 6 million Texans.
"This task is especially challenging in the great Lone Star State," Obama told the crowd. "There's no state that actually needs this more than Texas."
In a statement, Perry accused the president of coming to Texas "in a desperate attempt to salvage his ill-conceived and unpopular program from a Titanic fate by preaching expansion of the same Medicaid system he himself admits is broken."
Earlier in the day, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee, where even Democratic champions of the health care law were upset by the administration's past failure to keep them informed of potential problems.
"You've got to tell us what's going on candidly, fully," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the committee and a chief architect of the law. "The more you don't tell us, the greater the problem is going to be."
By CHRISTI PARSONS, LISA MASCARO and MICHAEL A. MEMOLI
Tribune Washington Bureau