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Shutdown takes focus off Tea Party's real obsession – Obamacare

Three weeks ago, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, held the Senate floor for 21 hours to dramatize his effort to block the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

“The American people have learned when we get involved, even then it seems as though Washington politicians rarely listen,” Cruz declared on Sept. 24. “I believe that can change. I am standing here today to salute, to celebrate the American democratic system. I am standing here today to suggest that if senators listen to their constituents, if we listen to the American people, the vote would be 100 to zero to defund Obamacare.”

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He said, “Regardless of how members voted (on Obamacare) three-and-a-half years ago, one of the great virtues of life is learning, looking at the evidence, looking at the facts, and seeing when something is not working.”

Since the day Cruz spoke, it has become clear that at least one aspect of Obamacare really is not working well: the federally run insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, in 36 states that opted not to build their own.

The enrollment process for uninsured people has been plagued by software malfunctions. Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, usually an Obama administration ally, wrote Monday, “The magnitude of this failure is stunning.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius went to an Obamacare enrollment event last Thursday in Pittsburgh, uninsured people who showed up ran into the same log-on problems that thousands of other Americans have faced.

Nonetheless Sebelius insisted, “It's getting better every day" and said that technology experts were “working around the clock to add capacity” to the system.

And yet despite this bad news for Obamacare supporters, Cruz’s hopes that public pressure would force Congress to block implementation of the law have been dashed.

The battles over a short-term spending bill and the government’s debt limit have led to a stalemate which has diverted attention from the Obamacare enrollment system’s disastrous debut.

Some Republicans acknowledge that this has been a lost opportunity for them.

“What breaks my heart is for the last 12 days, you have had a complete meltdown of the portal called Obamacare; the whole system is just not working,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “And we're overshadowing how badly Obamacare has been rolled out,” he said.

Were it not for the preoccupation with the debt limit and the government shutdown, Republicans might now be able to tell voters, “See, we told you so.” And Republicans did in fact predict a botched rollout of the exchanges.

Back in mid-August after the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general warned about delays in testing data security for the exchanges, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Americans “should not be forced to enter into exchanges” when the Obama administration “is so ill-prepared to guarantee the protection of personal data and taxpayer resources from hackers and cyber criminals….”

Republicans, are course, are still trying to convince the public that Obamacare won’t work and ought to be scrapped.

But many Americans may instead be worried that a default on U.S. Treasury securities could crush their 401k accounts or delay their Social Security benefit payments.

Cruz and his partner, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, argued back in August that the spending bill which Congress needed to pass by Sept. 30 was the moment to take a do-or-die stand on Obamacare. After the enrollment began Oct. 1, it would be too late, they argued.

“When you create a new entitlement program, these programs become very, very difficult to stop once they're implemented,” Lee told Fox News in August. “We need to stop them before they open, before this process starts on January 1, and our last chance to defund this program before it kicks in January 1 is in connection with the continuing resolution” – the short-term spending bill Congress needed to pass by Sept. 30 in order to keep government operations running. “We've got between now and September 30 to make sure that we don't fund it (Obamacare),” Lee said.

Lee could not have known it at the time, but it now seems possible that he and other Obamacare opponents would have been better off if they had just stepped out of the way and allowed the enrollment to start. The Obamacare software problems might have dominated news coverage for days, if not weeks.

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But Cruz and Lee had expectations which didn’t turn out as they had hoped.

The crucial vote that indicated that not enough Republicans were willing to throw in their lot with Cruz and Lee was the Sept. 27 cloture vote that paved the way for the Senate to pass its spending bill to fund government operations.

On the vote, 25 of the Senate’s 46 Republicans voted to end debate – including McConnell, Senate GOP Whip Sen. John Cornyn, and every member of the leadership team.

Cruz had warned that “any vote for cloture, any vote to allow Harry Reid to add funding for Obamacare with just a 51-vote threshold, a vote for cloture is a vote for Obamacare,” but his GOP colleagues didn’t see it that way. They saw the vote as necessary to keep government operations going and to avert a shutdown.

Lee had predicted that all 45 Republican senators who’d voted last March for a Cruz-sponsored amendment to defund Obamacare would vote against cloture. They didn’t , and nor did Democratic senators – such as Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas – who are up for re-election next year in Republican-leaning states.

Graham is one Republican who thinks that the sooner the spending and debt melodrama is over, “the better for us.”

He optimistically predicted Sunday that “the shutdown will be old news” in next year’s election and “Obamacare’s faults will be front and center in 2014 if we don't screw this up.”

Making the counter-argument, economist and left-of-center New York Times columnist Paul Krugman predicted Monday that the Obamacare software problems “will get fixed” and that Republicans who think “they’re going to be able to run against the (Obamacare) program a year from now are going to do about as well as they did in believing that they could use a shutdown to defund the program.”

It remains to be seen whether Graham’s and Krugman’s forecasts this week are as accurate as Cruz’s and Lee’s were in August.