Politics In The News: Ukraine And Obamacare

Monday is the deadline to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. And the U.S. continues to try to find ways to diffuse the crisis between Ukraine and Russia.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's foreign minister met yesterday. They discussed a diplomatic solution to the crisis but agreed only that they'd like one. That is the beginning of our discussion with Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays.

Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So did they make any progress?

ROBERTS: No. They agreed to talk some more. But Kerry made clear that the U.S. considers the Russian occupation of Crimea illegal and illegitimate, and said that these thousands, tens of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukraine border are creating a climate of fear and intimidation, but there's no indication that the Russians are ready to pull back.

And they both say that maybe the Ukrainian government should be involved in whatever happens next, but they disagree about elections, which the United States wants to go forward in May and Russia does not, so there's still lots of disagreement. The Russian ambassador yesterday refused to say that they wouldn't take more territory. So it poses a lot of tough choices for the president who, of course, is facing plenty of troubles here at home.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about some of those troubles. There have been problems, of course, with the Affordable Care Act. Today is the deadline for people to sign up for individual plans or at least show in good faith that they're trying to show up for individual plans. This was a disastrous rollout as people will recall from the fall. Are things any better now?

ROBERTS: Well, more people have signed up and it's possible that they will come close to seven million sign-ups. Apparently over the weekend, close to 400,000 people signed up. But there's nothing pretty about it and there have been all these authorized delays, giving the Republicans lots of fodder, and Republicans still expect it to be their chief issue in this election year.

And at the moment it looks like they can do quite well with it. But they also have a lot of other things going their way, as we've talked about. The states that are up - the retirements, all of that, and they're getting smart about taking Democratic issues off the table. Today, for instance, Steve, the Senate is expected to approve long term uninsurance(ph) benefits, and that's something that's been a long time coming.

INSKEEP: We're talking about long term unemployment insurance benefits here?

ROBERTS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Okay. So this is something that was huge last year for Democrats. They were going to be pushing throughout this election year to get unemployment insurance benefits extended. Now you're saying Republicans have gone ahead and given it to them.

ROBERTS: Well, believe it or not, there's actually a bipartisan agreement on something in the United States Senate and this is because there are members who have actual constituents suffering and they say they've found a way to pay for these benefits. Whether that's legit or not is another question. And there's also a question of whether the House will even take it up.

But Steve, this is a classic example of the difference between the House and the Senate. The Republicans in the Senate represent whole states and people like Dean Hiller of Nevada, who is one of the principal negotiators on this, looks at his state and says, look, I've got this huge unemployment problem and there are people hurting to have it fixed. And the Republicans and House seats in the same state will say, whoa, if I vote for this, I'll be considered a big spender and I'll get challenged in a primary.

So that's the reason the House is not expected to take it up any time soon, but the pressure could build on them once the Senate acts, and that's expected to happen today.

INSKEEP: Sure. So that's still a live issue. Now, what about another issue that Democrats wanted to raise, raising the minimum wage?

ROBERTS: Well, they expect to try to bring that up also at the end of this week. That's likely to, again, go nowhere in the House and there are some Democratic senators who are up for reelection who are balking at it as well because they think that it's not something that does terribly well with swing voters. But it does very well with people in the Democratic base, particularly women.

When you're talking about the minimum wage, you're talking about women. Two-thirds of the people who receive the minimum wage are female, and this is one of many attempts on the part of Democrats to get out the voters who normally don't vote in an off-year election to try to get them to the polls this year. We'll see whether that works or not. There are a lot of other attempts around young people, around minorities, but those are big questions in an off-year election.

INSKEEP: Okay. Months to go of campaigning before that election, and of course we'll be checking in with Cokie Roberts on Mondays here on MORNING EDITION as we go through this election year.

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