Chief correspondent

Two big issues are now before the country. One puts Republicans at great risk. The other will provide a stiff test for President Obama and his administration. Together they are likely to shape the political climate for 2014 and already are influencing the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, as well.

The first issue is the drama over spending and debt, which will play out in two acts over the next month. This battle escalated dramatically Friday when House Republicans, yielding to the most strident wing of their party, approved a measure to fund the government past Oct. 1 while defunding the Affordable Care Act.

The action in the House sets up a confrontation with the White House and congressional Democrats that could lead to a partial shutdown of the government. Republicans have no hope of winning the battle to defund Obamacare as long as this president is in office. The Senate will reject the House bill and, in any case, the president would veto anything like it that reaches his desk.

A related part of the GOP strategy will unfold soon, as House Republicans try to tie a provision to delay implementation of the health-care law to the measure raising the debt ceiling before the government runs out of borrowing authority. The president, still burned by the wreckage of debt-ceiling negotiations two years ago, has said he will not negotiate over the ceiling this fall. He reiterated that in a phone call with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on Friday.

The strategy to tie defunding of Obamacare to the government-funding bill has divided Republicans, producing an extraordinary spectacle of intraparty second-guessing and pointed criticism. The debate highlights a fundamental schism within the Republican Party. Can Republicans cater to their conservative base and still find ways to expand their appeal across the electorate in order to win back the White House in the future? Are the two mutually compatible or mutually exclusive?

A new Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows most cast-iron conservatives support shutting down the government to stop Obamacare. But that’s only one side of a big divide. (The Washington Post)

There are reasons Republicans feel emboldened to go after Obama’s health-care law. Three years after he signed the measure, the president has clearly failed in the public relations effort to win support for the Affordable Care Act.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that a majority of Americans say that they oppose the law—52 percent, compared with 42 percent who favor it. Among Republicans, 78 percent oppose it, and 68 percent of Republicans oppose it strongly. Overall, Democrats like the act, although 31 percent of them do not. Among independents, 54 percent are opposed.

Those findings, which are consistent with polls from other organizations, have encouraged Republicans to carry on the fight to defund or delay the law with ever more determination, even if they are likely to lose this battle. They hope to energize voters in 2014 as they did in 2010.

But the poll also offers evidence of the risks Republicans are taking as they set out on a path that could lead to partial shutdown of the government to force the issue of Obamacare funding. In the Post-ABC poll, only a quarter of Americans favor shutting down parts of the federal government to achieve that goal. The poll also highlights GOP divisions on this strategy: Only half of all Republicans are willing to shut down the government to block the law.

No one can predict just how this battle will end, but it is already apparent that whatever the outcome, there will be recriminations within the Republican coalition. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the darling of many tea party activists, came under sharp criticism a few days ago from tea party Republicans in the House for saying the obvious, that there probably aren’t enough votes in the Senate to defund Obamacare.

Some of the enmity aimed at Cruz may reflect the fact that he has offended many of his colleagues in the brief time he has been in Washington. Still, if what happened to him last week can happen to one of the most conservative senators in the country, it is a sign of the rightward pull anyone seeking the Republican nomination in 2016 will feel.

Those are the challenges for Republicans, but Obama and the Democrats have their own vulnerabilities to address. On Oct. 1, the administration will begin to implement major provisions of the health-care law. Will implementation result in massive problems, as critics are warning, or at worst relatively small glitches, as administration officials predict?

Earlier, the administration delayed implementation of the employer mandate to provide coverage in order to give businesses more time to prepare for the changes. Some companies are cutting back hours of part-time workers to avoid having to cover their health insurance. The health-care exchanges will begin operating Oct. 1, giving those without insurance the ability to choose among insurance plans.

Administration officials know that much is riding on what happens over the next few months. Getting enough people to sign up is only one part of the challenge. The mix of the newly insured is critical. A significant portion needs to be younger people, who are healthy and therefore less costly to insure.

Administration officials also know that confusion and lack of knowledge complicate their hopes for making the law a success. They are convinced that whatever people’s political affiliations, those without insurance want it and will buy it if the price is low enough and the sign-up process isn’t too complicated.

At this point, a majority of Americans say they don’t think they have enough information to understand the coming changes, but that might not be the key question. How people feel the law affects them could determine whether Obamacare is a burden for Democrats in 2014.

Some findings in the Post-ABC poll suggest that despite the law’s overall unpopularity, the Affordable Care Act might not become a flash point with the wider electorate next year. Asked about the direct impact on the cost, coverage and quality of their family’s health care, more say it has hurt than helped. But majorities of Americans actually say the law has had no effect on those, and on the latter two — coverage and quality — majorities of Republicans align with majorities of Democrats and independents in saying the law has had no effect on their family directly.

These issues will proceed on parallel tracks — the congressional battle with Obama on one and the administration’s effort to implement the health-care law on the other. For most of this year, discerning which way the political winds may be blowing in next year’s midterm elections has been difficult. The next two months could provide some clarity to that question.

For previous columns by Dan Balz,go to