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Obamacare's a Mess. Why Are Republicans So Nervous?

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., at the Capitol in Washington on July 24

Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., at the Capitol in Washington on July 24

The government shutdown and debt-ceiling scare are only a week in the past, but it feels like eons ago because of how the Obamacare rollout debacle has dominated the news. Still, we’re only eight weeks away from the expiration of the latest round of government funding, and that poses an interesting conundrum for Republicans. On the one hand, they were badly burned by the shutdown. On the other, Obamacare has so far resembled the mess they predicted, which, for some Republicans, is a sort of hindsight vindication for having shut down the government to try to stop it.

This raises an intriguing question: Would they do it again? With the law’s problems tangibly on display and Democratic unity fraying, their odds of extracting concessions—a delay in the individual mandate, perhaps—would be much higher, at least if the problems with the website continue.

I asked Michigan Representative Justin Amash, a Tea Party favorite and hardened exponent of the “defund Obamacare” movement, how the law’s early troubles have affected his thinking and whether it would be worthwhile for Republicans to force another showdown. Amash felt vindicated. “Republicans have long believed that Obamacare was going to fall apart,” he told me. “It’s always been politically in our best interests to just let it fall apart. But most of us don’t feel it’s right to allow harm [from the law] to happen to our constituents, so we’ve done everything we could to try to stop it or delay it.”

Amash made clear that he feels the onus is on President Obama to act on his own volition to address the problems with the law. “I think in a few months, as Obamacare begins to unravel, the president is going to look pretty bad in that he refused to compromise even on a one-year delay of [the] individual mandate,” he said. “Now he’s in a bind. He’s either going to have to delay the mandate unilaterally, which’ll make him look ridiculous for fighting us so hard on it during the past month, or he’s going to have to push forward to save face and end up with a complete disaster.”

I raised the possibility that Republicans could force the issue, especially with the looming expiration of the latest continuing resolution. But Amash, who is feeling the heat back home, sounded a lot more skeptical of the idea than some of his fellow travelers. “I think we miscalculated in believing President Obama would compromise,” he said. “That turned out not to be the case. I think Republicans need to take into account, in the next battle, that this is a guy who is resistant to compromise and not likely to compromise at all on Obamacare.”

That’s a pretty remarkable change from what Republicans like Amash were saying just two weeks ago. Maybe another conservative groundswell will eventually lead Republicans to adopt a more confrontational tone. Or maybe Obama and the Democrats have more leeway to hold firm and work through the law’s problems than most people realize.

Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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