WASHINGTON — For nearly five years, Republicans have struggled to make a scandal stick to President Barack Obama’s White House. One by one, the controversies faded away.
But some Republicans see the disastrous launch of Obama’s health care law, the landmark legislation of his time in office, as a problem that could linger.
The effort to bring widespread health insurance coverage to the only major developed country without a national health care system has been unpopular with many Americans, and opposition Republicans have fought hard to kill what’s called Obamacare.
Now Republicans are focusing on the many problems with the federal government website that’s meant to help uninsured Americans sign up for health care coverage.
Administration officials blamed the problems that began with the site’s Oct. 1 launch on high volume, but have since acknowledged more systemic issues with HealthCare.gov. A management consultant brought in to assess the problems has said the vast majority of the issues will be resolved by the end of November.
The White House is also dealing with another mess that could have long-lasting implications: U.S. government spying on foreign leaders. The scope of the surveillance programs was first made public in June, and the revelations keep coming.
But unlike with the health law, many Republicans support the government surveillance policies, making it more difficult for the opposition party to create a political furor.
For Republican lawmakers, the White House’s health care website’s problems have come at an opportune time, just one week after their strategy to shut down the government in exchange for concessions on the health care law failed.
Now the opposition hopes to use the latest problems with the health care system to build momentum before next year’s congressional elections, where many Democrats had hoped to point to the health care program as a reason to keep them in office.
Republicans have scheduled a series of congressional hearings on the health care program’s shortcomings, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is set to testify this coming week before a House of Representatives committee.
Anxiety about the website’s problems also appears to be on the rise among members of the president’s own party. Ten Democratic senators have urged Sebelius in a letter to extend the insurance enrollment window beyond the March 31 deadline.
A CBS News survey taken last week found that 43 percent of Americans approve of the health care law, compared with 35 percent in May.
Crisis management expert Eric Dezenhall said that if the White House wants to prevent the current troubles from becoming a long-term problem, it will have to do some basic damage control.
On Thursday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began holding daily briefings to address technical problems with the website, though many issues still remain shrouded from the public.
Republicans are turning to a familiar tactic, congressional hearings.
Dezenhall said that while investigations may help Republicans do some damage to the health care law, “there’s a difference between roughing up your enemy and defeating them.”