Whither the Obamacare fight?

October 8, 2013
(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

As the government's partial shutdown drags on, you might be forgiven for forgetting how this fight started: congressional Republicans' determination to defund, or at least delay, implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

But one week into the shutdown Obamacare is no longer center stage, despite the fact that its rollout has been plagued by major problems.

It's not that congressional Republicans have forgotten about the issue entirely. But they are now divided on whether it should be their galvanizing principle going forward. And more important from a political perspective, the shutdown's impacts and ongoing partisan warfare have overshadowed the glitches that have hampered enrollment.

During Friday morning's GOP Conference meeting, according to a lawmaker who was present but asked not to be identified because it was a closed-door session, House Republicans spent an hour in heated debate, during which not one person raised the issue of the Affordable Care Act.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) spent much of his Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week” talking to George Stephanopoulos about the problems of entitlement spending. He said that when it comes to the debt ceiling, "My goal here is to have a serious conversation about those things that are driving the deficit and driving the debt up. And the president’s refusal to sit down and have a conversation about this is putting our nation at risk of default.”

He did speak about the need to delay the individual mandate given the delay in the employer mandate, asking Stephanopolos, "Why wouldn't the president provide fairness to the American people?"

But few people on Capitol Hill expect the individual mandate to be delayed, despite conservatives' opposition to the program and the problems plaguing the online enrollment process. While a final deal between the two parties may include a compromise on one aspect of the plan, like eliminating the medical device tax that provides funding for Obamacare, the fight has moved onto a much broader debate about the nation's financial health.

Why has Obamacare moved to the back burner so quickly? Partly because enrollment has now begun, and it's much harder to deny people health-care coverage once they've signed up for insurance. And the fact that the continuing resolution fight has now merged with the debt-ceiling debate has heightened the dispute's economic stakes, shifting the discussion from ideology to finances.

In an e-mail, Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said the last week's turn of events has only bolstered the GOP's argument. "The predictable but still stunning failures of Obamacare bolster our argument that we should provide American families the same exemption that big businesses have already been granted.”

But at this point, some of Obama's allies are grateful to Boehner for diverting the public's attention away from the launch of the president's landmark legislative achievement and toward the debt ceiling and shutdown.

"John Boehner saved him," is the way one of them put it Monday.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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Chris Cillizza | October 8, 2013