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Website mess gives fuel to Obamacare critics

President Barack Obama vowed Monday to fix the embarrassing launch of insurance exchanges under his signature health care law – a high-profile stumble that threatens to give Republicans a boost after a politically bruising government shutdown.

The administration is now consumed with decoupling his signature program from its bumpy rollout, as Republicans warn that the technical problems with Healthcare.gov are only a sign of things to come. Just how bad the fallout will be for Obama remains to be seen.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who led the effort to tie a potential government shutdown to the future of Obamacare, said flatly, “Its failings ... are not limited to its website or its rollout.”

Healthcare.gov’s early struggles were mostly overshadowed by the government shutdown and debt ceiling deadline. Ironically, the headline-dominating shutdown came after Cruz and other conservative critics of Obamacare tried unsuccessfully to defund and delay the law.

That strategy backfired on Republicans, whose public polling numbers later showed deep public opposition to using the shutdown as leverage to cripple Obamacare. Worse for the GOP, the Affordable Care Act’s middling approval ratings ticked upward at the height of the shutdown.

Now, the website's start-up woes offer Republicans an opportunity to again re-litigate their case against the law as it enters its implementation stage. Indeed, GOP leaders seemed far from chastened by the shutdown in their response to Obama’s speech on Monday.

“If the president is frustrated by the mounting failures of his health care law, it wasn’t apparent today,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The president said of the online Obamacare rollout: "The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process." Joe Skipper / Reuters

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called the exchange rollout "a disaster that has further eroded the American people's confidence in the federal government's ability to keep basic promises."

GOP lawmakers on Monday took aim at Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for delaying her testimony this week before a House committee probing Healthcare.gov. The House Energy and Commerce Committee later announced that Sebelius will testify on Wednesday, Oct. 30, and will "answer all of the committee's questions," according to a statement.

Republicans who control the committee want to use the forum as an opportunity to publicly humiliate the administration over the exchange portal’s launch.

Sebelius has said she is busy restoring her department’s functions in the wake of the government shutdown. HHS said Monday that Sebelius might agree to appear before Congress as early as next week.

Some Republicans have also called for Sebelius’s resignation, though they’ve also done so at previous points during the Obama administration over other health care controversies. The secretary was in attendance at Monday’s speech.

Obama’s remarks on Monday were meant to reassure “nervous” supporters of the law that Healthcare.gov – the most visible portal through which individuals can access health insurance exchanges – would be repaired as soon as possible. The president went further in highlighting the other ways in which consumers could access the exchanges, or other benefits of the law.

“The Affordable Care Act is not just a website,” Obama said. “It's much more.”

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Obama said he made “no excuses” for the struggles of the website, and vowed to personally see through the work to repair the issues. He said a “tech surge” featuring around-the-clock work to fix the glitches was already well under way, though he didn’t specify the exact technical nature of the problems.

For Obama, a key metric will come in mid-November, when administration officials said that they expect to release the first round of enrollment statistics.

So far, the Obama administration has been reluctant to detail some of the basic statistics involving enrollment in insurance plans through the exchange. The White House said over the weekend that about 476,000 applications had been filed through the website, though that figure doesn’t necessarily represent enrollment.

On Monday, Obama said that 20 million people had visited Healthcare.gov, and that “thousands” had managed to enroll in insurance plans as a result.