How Republicans blew their best chance to dismantle ObamaCare

On January 1, the actual insurance part will kick in for many Americans

President Obama
(Image credit: (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images))

On October 1, nonessential functions of the federal government ground to a halt as Republicans dug in against ObamaCare. On the very same day, the health-care exchanges created by ObamaCare went live, albeit with a glitch-plagued rollout.

Early hiccups with the exchanges — a central piece of the health-care law, which allows the uninsured to shop for coverage and obtain federal subsidies — were a debacle for the White House. However, the shutdown "obscured widespread problems" with the law, wrote The New York Times's Robert Pear, "giving the administration time to work out the kinks."

Those kinks have yet to be worked out. But Republicans have changed the subject so drastically that the White House may get to the finish line relatively unscathed.

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"We have missed a golden opportunity to do something about it," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told Fox News.

Of course, the shutdown was originally an attempt by hard-line conservatives to pressure President Obama into scrapping or undermining his signature domestic policy achievement. Yet in the end, Republicans came away with only a minor tweak, an income verification guarantee, that was already part of the law.

Time will probably work against the GOP going forward. The "clean" continuing resolution Republicans rejected to instead wander off on the quixotic defund mission would have only funded the government through mid-November. The final deal Republicans got, however, contained funding into January, while raising the debt ceiling to February.

The difference is crucial. While people began enrolling in health care exchanges October 1, coverage obtained through those exchanges goes live January 1. Once people start receiving their coverage in the new year, Republicans will, in essence, no longer be trying to prevent the law from taking hold, but rather working to strip people of their newly obtained insurance.

Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham, whose group opposed the final fiscal deal, made just that point this week, saying that "almost every member of the House Republican conference, if not all of them, is deeply concerned about ObamaCare and knows that we have to do something before January 1 to stop it."

In the wake of the shutdown, conservatives have vowed to continue the fight. Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, wrote that "delaying implementation by withholding funds from a law" like ObamaCare was "a reasonable and necessary fight."

Except the shutdown fiasco effectively stripped Republicans of their leverage. If Ted Cruz and company are really serious about forcing another shutdown, they'll have to do so as uninsured Americans begin receiving their coverage, and as the 2014 elections begin to take shape.

The shutdown already weakened the GOP so badly that election handicappers think Democrats now have a chance to retake the House in 2014, a previously far-fetched idea. Another shutdown fight would only further harm the GOP's odds of clinging to power past next year.

With the government slowly returning to full strength, Republicans are finally getting around to pressing the administration for answers about ObamaCare's problematic debut. It may be too late, though: The party, crippled by the shutdown and facing an existential crisis of leadership, looks like it missed its final opportunity to cause any meaningful damage to the law.

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