By Bernie Becker and Sam Baker - 10/13/13 10:00 AM EDT
House Republicans, now seeking a way out of the current fiscal impasse, fear that the government shutdown robbed them of a chance to highlight the problems in ObamaCare's rollout.
Oct. 1 should have been a layup for Republican opponents of President Obama’s signature healthcare law, who watched as new insurance exchanges were beset by a slew of technical snafus.
But in a harsh bit of irony for the GOP, that was also the first day of a government shutdown driven largely by their own efforts to defund ObamaCare – a standstill that has dominated headlines all month.
To make matters worse, Republicans have taken a public relations hit for their strategy , a fact not lost on the lawmakers who — along with GOP leadership — opposed making government funding contingent on healthcare changes.
“I think we have missed a big issue. I don’t think there’s any question that this whole shutdown episode has covered for the bad rollout of ObamaCare,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "A lot of us warned that."
Conservative lawmakers who lobbied for the shutdown strategy say that ObamaCare is such a disaster that they’ll have plenty of time to publicize the rollout’s problems.
But the fears from top Republicans that they missed a golden opportunity underscore that, while the GOP remains united on the need to roll back ObamaCare, they are deeply divided on the best strategy for achieving that goal.
"I’ve never been for the government shutdown," Cole said Friday. "I don’t think it’s an appropriate or winning political strategy.”
On Oct. 1, the technical issues for the healthcare law’s new exchanges made shopping for insurance nearly impossible.
Structural problems with healthcare.gov, the website to enroll in coverage in 36 states, combined with overwhelming traffic to the site, locked users out of the first step in the enrollment process. Visitors had trouble even seeing their options — much less buy a plan.
In many ways, this was the "train wreck" that Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was actually talking about — a botched implementation that obscured the law's coverage options.
But Obama didn’t receive a single question about the snafus at a news conference last week, despite an appearance before reporters that lasted more than an hour.
And instead of the GOP, the most vocal critics of the rollout turned out to be late-night comedians, including Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.
"You can't campaign on the fact that millions don't have healthcare and then be surprised that millions don't have healthcare,” “Update” anchor Cecily Strong said after the first week. "How could you not be ready? That's like 1-800-FLOWERS getting caught off guard by Valentine's Day."
Meanwhile, the GOP also saw its poll number plummet in recent days – just as many opponents of the shutdown strategy had feared.
Even before the current stalemate, shutting down the government in an attempt to defund ObamaCare had consistently polled the lowest of every option for the healthcare law.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week then showed that support for the Republican party had fallen to a record low of 24 percent. At the same time, support for the healthcare law ticked up to 47 percent — even as it hit the roughest patch yet in its implementation.
“I think we can fight the problems with ObamaCare in a more intelligent way than we have, and actually get some success out of it,” Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), another leadership ally, told reporters. “But we are where we are.”
Not surprisingly, the conservatives who drove the train on the defund strategy don’t see it that way. Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said Friday that the “terrible” rollout would turn people off of ObamaCare in a way that no GOP-passed law could.
And Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who spearheaded an August letter seeking a defunding of the healthcare law, said he hadn’t heard of any concerns from other Republicans.
“The failures of the rollout speak for themselves,” Meadows said. “Ultimately, ObamaCare and the failure of the rollout will continue to dominate.” The White House and Congress have, by many accounts, made strides toward a fiscal deal, even as Democrats and Republicans still have more than a few obstacles to overcome.
Boustany told reporters Friday that he hoped the way out of the current fiscal gridlock would include a chance for broader negotiations over ObamaCare and other structural spending issues.
Such a resolution to the shutdown and debt ceiling might give the GOP a chance to change their focus, but the glitches in the rollout are getting better.
The sixteen states that chose to establish their own insurance exchanges have had better luck than the federal government in getting their systems up and running. Several states — including California, New York and Kentucky — have already enrolled thousands of new patients. And though healthcare.gov still isn't fully operational by any means, more consumers have been able to begin the shopping process after the administration took the site offline to make improvements.
Still, even some of the Republicans who believe they’ve missed a chance to score some political points think there are more opportunities on the horizon.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of GOP leadership, mentioned a Sebelius appearance in Pittsburgh last week where attendees had problems signing up for insurance online.
“I also don’t think it’s going to be resolved,” Lankford said. “Those kind of stories are just going to keep rolling.”
Lankford added that, for many in the GOP, taking a last shot to stop the Affordable Care Act in September overshadowed discussion of any potential problems with the exchanges.
“I think that’s overthinking it for us. It’s nice to be able to do in hindsight,” Lankford said. “But you’re not going to also predict that.”