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The silver lining of the Obamacare meltdown

The health-care meltdown is taking Congress's attention away from the budget talks—and that could make a fiscal deal more likely.
President Barack Obama walks out of the Oval Office adjacent to the Rose Garden prior to departing on Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 5, 2013.
President Barack Obama walks out of the Oval Office adjacent to the Rose Garden prior to departing on Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 5, 2013.

Having watched their party descend into chaos over the government shutdown, Republicans aren't likely to let the fiscal negotiations upstage Obamacare's problems again. And that could be good news for the Congressional leaders who are struggling to put together a budget agreement by mid-December. 

Republicans have seen a huge reversal in political fortune since the government reopened and Obamacare's problems have taken center stage. "It would argue against not having another shutdown: have Democrats keep shooting themselves in the foot and the president keep giving disastrous press conferences," says Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Bush health official. 

Pro-shutdown conservatives who successfully convinced the GOP to go to war over the budget are now happy to get out of the way and let Obamacare's rocky rollout be Topic A.  "Looking ahead, the nation is in a state of flux as the health care law continues to implode. How that plays out over the next several weeks and through the holidays will go a long way in determining what actions will be taken in 2014," said Dan Holler, a spokeman for Heritage Action, an outside pressure group at the heart of the GOP shutdown push.

And right now, there's nothing that they would prefer to focus on. "All indications are that the only things Republicans want to talk about is repealing the Affordable Care Act," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the second-ranking Democrat in the budget negotiations. 

Congressional leaders have already set exceedingly low expectations for a budget deal to avoid more gridlock and legislative failure. While not all Republicans are crazy about sequestration, most seem willing to live with it, and more have openly embraced the status quo as a conservative victory.

Beating Democrats up on the Affordable Care Act, House conservatives may not feel the need to extract ten pounds of blood and flesh over the budget. "Separate from all of the spending negotiations, we should be working on repeal. It’s the right thing do, regardless if you have a spending bill coming up or debt limit bill coming up. I don’t think you need to attach the issues together," Rep. Justin Amash told Buzzfeed.

That all could give Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray a little more breathing room as they try to put together the basic outlines of a budget agreement by Dec. 13.  "Having everyone train their fire on the health care act makes it's a little easier to get some things through," says one House Democratic aide. 

There are still plenty of obstacles to even the smallest budget agreement. Democrats and some Republicans insist sequestration must be reversed, and politically acceptable offsets remain scarce. Democrats continue to include tax revenue and farm bill savings in a deal, which GOP leaders staunchly oppose. Democrats also want to ensure that any relief from sequestration is equally split between defense and non-defense spending, while some Republicans point out that only defense gets hit with $20 billion in further cuts this January.

But the angst within the Democratic Party over Obamacare could make it harder for them to fight for their budget priorities, having lost their post-shutdown mojo. And while they might avoid another blow-up over the budget, they could end up with a watered down deal.

So far, there haven't been any breakthroughs in the talks, which have been almost entirely confined to Ryan and Murray's offices, with little news percolating to the other 27 members of the budget committee. But for now, it could help for them to keep a low profile.