By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After a bruising defeat over Obamacare in the government shutdown, Republicans hope to regain momentum by exposing how President Barack Obama's administration ran aground trying to launch his signature healthcare reform law.
Three Republican-led committees in the House of Representatives are investigating the technical flaws that have hobbled Healthcare.gov, a federal website meant to help millions of Americans in 36 states sign up for health insurance benefits, since its launch on October 1.
The administration says the site has been overwhelmed in the past three weeks by interest from nearly 20 million people who have exacerbated underlying problems with the system, adding that it has brought in top technology experts to fix it.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will be the first to hold the administration and its contractors to account, with a hearing set on Thursday that will feature sworn testimony from four contractors including website developer CGI Federal.
Committee Chairman Fred Upton told Reuters the session would focus on whether the contractors who built the site warned the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about troubles ahead of the launch, and whether HHS made sufficient inquiries on how the work was progressing.
"Our goal is to get to the bottom of this," Upton said in an interview.
He contends that the rollout failed because the administration delayed moving ahead with important implementation steps until after Obama emerged as victor in the 2012 presidential election.
"It was a political decision, and that delay cost everything," he said.
Republicans also blame the site's problems on a design that required users to create accounts and check their eligibility for government subsidies before showing them the cost of new insurance plans and other details such as whether their doctor would be included in coverage.
"They didn't want people to figure out that all these broken promises - whether keeping your physician or your plan or that (insurance) rates would go down instead of going up - they wanted to keep that all away from getting exposed. And that delay has cost them big in terms of having a successful rollout," Upton said.
Upton's panel will take sworn testimony from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius six days after it questions the contractors.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa also is seeking answers about White House involvement in decisions about Healthcare.gov.
Meanwhile the House Ways and Means Committee has announced an October 29 hearing with Marilyn Tavenner, who heads the HHS agency overseeing implementation.
Republican lawmakers and congressional aides say the oversight push is part of an effort to regain the political advantage on Obamacare after a 16-day government shutdown in which the party failed to derail the law while driving their own poll numbers sharply lower.
They said the plan is to focus on specific weaknesses in the law including the troubled rollout, the law's effect on healthcare costs, concerns about identify theft, subsidy fraud and reduced hours for workers. The aim is to highlight problems they say the Affordable Care Act poses for ordinary Americans.
Tea Party movement supporters say they will continue to press for delays in the individual mandate and a measure that would deny federal healthcare subsidies for congressional staff.
By contrast, the Democratic-controlled Senate has called no hearings on Obamacare so far. But an administration official was scheduled to brief House Democrats on the rollout on Wednesday.
"While we appreciate House Republicans' newfound interest in the implementation of health reform, it is clear they are not interested in anything other than continuing their desperate drive to sabotage this law, which so far has included shutting down the government," said Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
House Speaker John Boehner has also called for "smart, targeted strikes" aimed at splitting the unity that Democrats demonstrated in their showdown with Republicans over the debt ceiling.
Aides say the idea is to pressure Democrats from conservative states into backing Republican bills to delay or dismantle parts of the law, by playing up problems in their home districts that could be blamed on Obamacare's flaws.
Republican strategists believe that using Obamacare's flaws to hurt Democratic lawmakers could also help Republicans realize their 2014 election goal of winning Senate control. Potentially vulnerable Democrats include Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
"At some point, the message should sink in that the law's hurting their constituents. If that happens, hopefully they'll see that they need to break party ranks and support change or suffer tremendous consequences in 2014," said Dan Holler of Heritage Action for America, the conservative advocacy group linked to the Heritage Foundation.
A renewed Republican focus on the law's implementation could be an unwelcome distraction for the administration, which has until mid-November to iron out the rollout problems or risk jeopardizing its goal of signing up 7 million uninsured people for coverage in 2014.
The missteps already have led to Republican calls for the resignation of Sebelius.
But the 16-day government shutdown that exposed a bitter division between diehard Tea Party conservatives and other Republicans has raised concerns about the dangers of further overreach.
"They blew their platform for this discussion and now they need to refocus selectively on the most compelling things," said Republican strategist Jennifer Millerwise Dyck.
"Anything that comes across as an overreach for fixing Obamacare is going to fail," she said. "Wasting time and money on the impossible will be met with complete disdain from the American people, especially after the circus we just saw."
Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which has spent $12 million on opposition TV ads aimed at deterring enrollment in nine states since mid-summer, is contemplating a new media push that specifically targets the rollout.
"We want to make sure that the maximum exposure is given to all of the boondoggles and stunning incompetence of the rollout," said AFP president Tim Phillips.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Xavier Briand)