Democrats and Republicans disagree about a lot when it comes to President Obama's signature health-care law. But on one point, there is consensus: Obamacare is about much more than HealthCare.gov.
That's precisely why improving the Web site, as the Obama administration announced Sunday it had done by its self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline, won't spare it a prolonged political battle that promises to spill over into 2014.
Both sides have begun to look beyond the technical glitches that plagued the rollout of HealthCare.gov, the site designed for Americans to shop for coverage in the newly installed federal exchange. From there, they've parted ways sharply.
Democrats are eager to move on to a discussion of what they see as the chief benefits of the new law in the hopes of bolstering Obamacare's image headed into the midterm elections. Republicans are keen on doing just the opposite.
Speaking on CBS's "Face The Nation" Sunday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said that the Web site performance benchmarks the administration said it met amounted to "good news." But, he added, "I think what we've lost sight of is that the underlying program itself, the product of the health insurance that Americans will be able to access, is critically important."
Like Menendez, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) was looking beyond the Web site and its early woes and fixes — but in a very different way. "Website is least of Obamacare's problems," Cornyn tweeted Sunday.
The myriad problems with the launch of of the Web site were the most visible issues with Obamacare during the past couple of months. They crowded out just about everything but the revelation that some Americans might not be able to stay on their health plans despite Obama's promise that everyone could keep their coverage if they wanted.
But as disastrous as the launch of the Web site was, it was difficult to imagine the problems continuing with no end in sight. Both Democrats and Republicans seemed to realize that. So neither party put all their eggs into that basket in the broader political battle to define the health-care law.
Instead, they braced for what looks to be the next round of debate.
Democrats were taking no victory laps Sunday. They offered only cautious optimism and talked about moving on to a discussion of what the law means for Americans' access to health care.
Republicans, meanwhile, were equally eager to talk policy. They conceded no ground in the wake of the Obama administration's announcement about the fixes it made to HealthCare.gov, and instead pointed to potential pitfalls ahead.
"I think it's going to be an unfolding disaster for the president," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."
Whether the health-care law moving forward is the disaster that Cole foresees or the vindication that many Democrats are wagering it will be will speak volumes about the 2014 midterm elections. Most voters said in a recent Post-ABC poll that a congressional candidate's support for or opposition to the law would affect their vote. (A higher percentage said they were more likely to oppose candidates because of their support for the law.)
That means greater attention moving forward to questions about whether a high enough percentage of young and healthy people will sign up for coverage to make the law a success. It means more questions about how far Democratic lawmakers will move ahead with legislative proposals to allow Americans to stay on their plans even as Obama has announced his own fix. And it means key deadlines on the horizon will be under extra scrutiny.
And that all assumes that the days of the Web site problems hogging the spotlight are over. It's not clear they are, as questions remain about "back-end" performance and average response time.
For now, congressional Democrats — who've been distancing themselves from Obamacare with increasing frequency by political necessity — can take some comfort in the Web site fixes that the administration just announced. For a while, it seemed like each day brought worse news about Obamacare than the last. Sunday was not one of those days, at least according to early data.
But the larger fight to define Obamacare is just warming up. And nothing the administration announced Sunday did anything to change that.
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