As Obama defends health care law, Republicans renew efforts to stop it

With the government shutdown and debt ceiling debate in the rear view mirror, GOP lawmakers are retraining their focus on Obamacare and once again calling for changes to the law.

President Obama's Monday speech addressing the law's problematic rollout -- and a coming tech surge to improve the website -- gave them exactly the forum they needed.

"The taxpayers have already shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars to build the original website. How much more money is President Obama going to demand? Instead of continuing to pour money into this broken law, it's time to issue a permanent delay and work on solutions that provide real health care reform, rather than broken promises and error messages," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the number two Senate Republican.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, called the rollout a "$400-plus million mistake" and an "embarrassment," and seconded Cornyn's calls for a permanent delay. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said the president's speech should have addressed "the substantive, real-life consequences of his signature law." Mr. Obama actually defended the law's "essence" as "working just fine," even if the website fell short of expectations.

Several Republicans drew attention to the problem of insurance companies cancelling existing plans, bolstered by a Kaiser Health News article published Monday that said insurers had sent hundreds of thousands of letters to people who buy their own coverage informing them that their plans had been cancelled, mainly because they failed to meet the law's requirements that will kick in on Jan. 1.

"If and when the technical glitches get fixed, Americans will unfortunately still face the bleak reality of this train wreck--problems no IT specialist can fix," Thune said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., issued an ominous warning to consumers who use the exchanges to keep a record of every error they encounter on HealthCare.gov "in order to protect themselves from potential fraud, double billing, and penalties once the mandate is enforced."

"Make no mistake: The IRS will go after anyone who fails to meet the Obamcare requirements, so it's important that consumers document the online problems," Rubio said.

In fact, the Affordable Care Act limitsthe IRS' ability to collect the mandated fine if a taxpayer chooses not to purchase insurance. "In the case of any failure by a taxpayer to timely pay any penalty imposed by [the mandate], such taxpayer shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalty with respect to such failure," the law says. That includes curtailing the IRS' power to seize property.

Republicans have launched several lines of investigation into the law. At least three House committees are expected to launch inquiries into the law's weaknesses, including a House Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled for Thursday entitled, "Implementation Failures: Didn't Know or Didn't Disclose?" Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, sent a letter earlier this month to Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius last month asking about the alleged architectural problems with HealthCare.gov.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, echoed Republican demands that Sebelius testify before Congress as early as this week. "Americans didn't get any answers from the president today, but the House's oversight of this failure is just beginning," Boehner said. "With more than one trillion taxpayer dollars being spent on a completely defective program, Congress is going to get to the bottom of this debacle."

HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters told CBS News that Sebelius and other HHS officials could testify before Congress as early as next week, though nothing is confirmed at this time -- and it won't be in time for the Thursday hearing. "We are in close communication with the committee and have expressed our desire to be responsive to their request," Peters said. "We have always indicated to the committee that she intended to testify but that she had a scheduling conflict. We continue to work with them to find a mutually agreeable date in the near future."

Yet there still seems to be little unity among the GOP on what to do about the law going forward: Call for a full repeal, which is unrealistic given the Democratic majority in the Senate? Push for a delay of the heart of the law, the individual mandate that Americans purchase health insurance or pay a fine? Or simply wait for the law's problems to spur a wave of negative press and public opinion?

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who helped spark the strategy to shut down the government over the law's funding, is still calling for the law to be defunded and repealed. On ABC's "This Week" Sunday, he would not rule out the possibility of another government shutdown, saying he will "do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare."

Others have said the persistent and narrow focus on the Affordable Care Act takes too much oxygen away from other Republican priorities, like cutting spending and the size of government.

"I think focusing on Obamacare takes you away from the larger picture," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on NBC's Meet the Press. "We have $128 trillion worth of unfunded liabilities and the total net worth of our country is $94 trillion and we have another $17 trillion worth of debt."

Moreover, the health care law might fail without Republicans going to great lengths to help it along, Coburn argued. "Obamacare is going to fail on its own right," he said. "The sick people are signing up, the healthy aren't. And they're not going to because the deductibles are so high and the cost is going to be high."

Another prominent Republican, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, urged Republicans like Cruz to "have a little bit of self-restraint" when it comes to Obamacare, and let the law's rocky implementation speak for itself.

"It might actually be a politically better approach to see the massive dysfunction. But we don't even hear about that because we've stepped on that message. And I think Republicans need to just take a step back and...show a little self-restraint and let this happen a little more organically," Bush said. He also criticized said his party needs to present an alternative, which they haven't done.

Cruz called the people advancing the let-it-fail strategy "Republican gray beards."

"I profoundly disagree with the message. I want to step on their message," Cruz said. "I consider that theory the 'Bad Samaritan' theory. Basically inflict a bunch of harm on the American people and hope we benefit politically from it. What a terrible, cynical approach. I'm not interested in seeing the American people suffer just because my party might benefit politically if they blame the Democrats for the foolish policies that have been imposed," he said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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