WASHINGTON (AP) — "Obamacare" escaped unharmed from the government shutdown Republicans hoped would stop it, but just as quickly they have opened a new line of attack — one handed to them by the administration itself.
While Congress was arguing, President Barack Obama's plan to expand coverage for the uninsured suffered a self-inflicted wound. A computer system seemingly designed by gremlins gummed up the first open enrollment season. After nearly three weeks, it's still not fixed.
Republicans hope to ride that and other defects they see in the law into the 2014 congressional elections. Four Democratic senators are facing re-election for the first time since they voted for the Affordable Care Act, and their defeat is critical to GOP aspirations for a Senate majority.
Democrats say that's just more wishful thinking, if not obsession.
Although Obama's law remains divisive, only 29 percent of the public favors its complete repeal, according to a recent Gallup poll. The business-oriented wing of the Republican party wants to move on to other issues. Americans may be growing weary of the health care fight.
"This is the law of the land at this point," said Michael Weaver, a self-employed photographer from rural southern Illinois who's been uninsured for about a year. "We need to stop the arguing and move forward to make it work."
It took him about a week and half, but Weaver kept going back to the healthcare.gov website until he was able to open an account and apply for a tax credit that will reduce his premiums. He's not completely finished because he hasn't selected an insurance plan, but he's been able to browse options.
It beats providing page after page of personal health information to insurance companies, Weaver said.
Under the new law, insurers have to accept people with health problems. Weaver is in his mid-50s, with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but otherwise in good health. He says those common conditions made it hard for him to get coverage before.
Although Weaver seems to have gotten past the major website obstacles, he's still finding shortcomings. There's no place to type in his medications and find out what plans cover them. "I wish there was more detail, so you could really figure it out," he said.
Such a nuanced critique appears to be lost on congressional Republicans.
"#TrainWreck: Skyrocketing Prices, Blank Screens, & Error Messages," screamed the headline on a press release Friday from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. A House hearing on the "botched Obamacare rollout" is scheduled for this coming week. GOP lawmakers want Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign.
Administration officials, in their most detailed accounting yet of the early rollout, said Saturday that about 476,000 health insurance applications have been filed through federal and state exchanges. But the officials continue to refuse say how many people have enrolled in the insurance markets.
Without enrollment figures, it's unclear whether the program is on track to reach the 7 million people projecting by the Congressional Budget Office to gain coverage during the six-month sign-up period.
The president was expected to address the problems on Monday during a health care event at the White House. The administration has yet to fully explain what has gone wrong with the online signup system.
"To our Democratic friends: You own 'Obamacare' and it's going to be the political gift that keeps on giving," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
"Irresponsible obsession," scoffs Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees much of the health law.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says she doesn't see how going after the health law rollout will help Republicans by the time of next year's election.
"Americans are technology optimists," said Lake. "You tell them the website has problems today, and they'll assume it will be better tomorrow. I mean, we're Americans. We can fix a website."
There may be a method to the GOP's single-mindedness.
Republicans are intent on making the health law an uncomfortable anchor around the neck of four Democratic senators seeking re-election in GOP-leaning states, weighing them down as they try to unseat them. Republicans need to gain six seats to seize the majority in the Senate, and any formula for control includes flipping the four seats.
Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina will be facing voters for the first time since they were among the 60 Democrats who voted for the health law in 2009.
More than a year before the election, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton is airing an ad that criticizes Pryor for his vote, telling Arkansans that Pryor "cast the deciding vote to make you live under Obamacare." The commercial's final image shows Pryor with Obama, who took a drubbing in Arkansas last year.
"The bottom line is these candidates will have to answer for why they voted for this bill," said Rob Engstrom, senior vice president and national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
If the website gets fixed, other problems may emerge. Republicans can still try linking 'Obamacare' to rising premiums, anemic job growth and broader economic worries.
Will the strategy work?
The chamber spent millions on ads in 2012 criticizing Senate incumbents such as Jon Tester of Montana and Bill Nelson of Florida for their health care votes, yet many of those candidates overcame the criticism and won re-election.
The economy, not health care, remains the top concern of voters. By putting opposition to the health care law ahead of all other priorities, economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin says tea-party conservatives may have overdone it.
"Obamacare was an effective campaign weapon," said Holtz-Eakin, and adviser to Republicans. "The question is, have they damaged it beyond its political viability?"
BOSTON (AP) — Lawmakers and strategists from the Republican Party's establishment are lashing out at tea partiers and congressional conservatives whose unflinching demands triggered the 16-day partial government shutdown and sent the GOP's popularity plunging to record lows.
The open criticism is a stark reversal from just three years ago when the GOP embraced new energy from the insurgent group to fuel a return to power in the House.
For a party in an extended identity crisis, the intensifying clash between those in its mainstream and those on its far-right wing muddies its strategy ahead of the 2014 elections.
In the view of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, House Republicans overreached during the budget impasse by believing "we have one-half of one-third of the power in Washington, therefore we have three-fourths of the ability to get things done."
Republicans run the House, but Democrats control the Senate and the White House.
Bush, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who was hosting an education conference in Boston, argued that congressional Republicans represent "the mirror opposite" of the successes of GOP governors.
Other party elders, whose calls for compromise were often overshadowed by the tea party in recent weeks, blamed conservative groups such as Heritage Action, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth. They were influential during the debate, at times promising to help defeat Republicans lawmakers who voted for a compromise with Democrats.
"The right is a multiplicity of various groups, some of which aren't even Republicans, but who think they can control the Republican Party," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, condemning tactics he referred to as "radicalness."
Republican strategist Mike Murphy chided what he called "the stupid wing of the Republican Party."
"There's tension and there ought to be a questioning of whether we ought to listen to such bad advice," Murphy said when asked about the influence of conservative groups. "We took a huge brand hit. It's self-inflicted. ... I'm glad there are no elections tomorrow."
The government reopened Thursday after Congress voted the night before to end the shutdown and increase the nation's borrowing authority, narrowly averting what business leaders feared would be economic disaster with global implications.
Polls suggest that voters overwhelmingly disapproved of congressional Republicans' handling of the crises.
Gallup found earlier in the month that just 28 percent of Americans reported a favorable opinion of the GOP, its lowest rating since the firm began such polling about the two parties in 1992. Republicans may have fared worse than Democrats during the ordeal, but neither party escaped political damage.
"There are no winners here," President Barack Obama said Thursday.
The compromise package, brokered by a group of moderate Senate Republicans and Democrats, funds the government through Jan. 15. To head off a default, the agreement gives the government the authority to borrow what it needs through Feb. 7. Treasury officials will be able to use bookkeeping maneuvers to delay a potential default for several weeks beyond that date, as they have done in the past.
Lawmakers are now trying to find agreement on how to replace this year's automatic, across-the-board spending cuts with more orderly deficit reduction. But the showdown and subsequent criticism from establishment Republicans seemed to embolden defiant conservatives, who promised more hard-line tactics in the coming months. Some pledged to work harder than ever to defeat Republicans who stand in their way.
"Congress has failed," the Tea Party Express said in a fundraising message.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a tea party favorite, hinted at primary challenges for Republican incumbents "from sea to shining sea" just hours after Congress voted to end the shutdown.
"Friends, do not be discouraged by the shenanigans of D.C.'s permanent political class," she wrote on her Facebook page. "Be energized. We're going to shake things up in 2014."
The Club for Growth on Thursday endorsed a GOP challenger to Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who has yet to decide whether he will seek re-election next year. Tea party groups are also supporting the conservative challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky while backing like-minded candidates in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she hopes her party would move toward "common-sense problem solvers" in the future.
"I don't want to go down this road again," she said in an interview with The Associated Press, noting that she disagreed with congressional conservatives' tactics during the budget fight. "What we take from this experience is that there are obviously common-sense problem solvers, and that's where the party needs to be."
Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is among those pushing for mainstream Republicans to play a more significant role in party politics.
"We don't have leadership in Washington, D.C.," Branstad said of his party, making an exception for Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who is helping lead bipartisan budget talks and headlining a Branstad fundraiser next month. "There's a lot of governors around this country who could run this country a lot better than people in Washington."
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and news survey specialist Dennis Junius in Washington contributed to this report.
"Hopeful," that's how Congresswoman Ann Wagner describes Thursday's meeting between GOP leaders and President Barack Obama.
The two sides got together to discuss the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling deadline. The St. Louis County Republican was one of 18 GOP lawmakers who attended the 90-minute meeting at the White House.
Wagner told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that toning down the rhetoric that has accompanied the dispute was one area where both sides agreed. "We can't be fear-mongering and talking in ways that make our markets react," she said.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Top Missouri Republicans are looking for ways to ensure greater party loyalty after a supermajority in the GOP-led House recently failed to enact an income tax cut.
Meeting Saturday in Kansas City, the Missouri Republican State Committee proposed a new requirement for candidates registering to run as Republicans. They would be asked to sign a statement saying: "I have read, understand and fundamentally support the platform of the Missouri Republican Party."
Supporters of the measure noted that tax cuts ought to be a central Republican philosophy.
Fifteen Republican House members defected from party leaders this week to help sustain Democratic Governor Jay Nixon's veto of an income tax cut. Some echoed his concerns about the effect on education funding.
The GOP committee took no action Saturday on the proposed policy.