WASHINGTON (AP) — All roads lead to "Obamacare" for Republicans.
So much so that they acted like they had barely hit a small speed bump when Democrats voted unilaterally on Thursday to weaken century-old Senate filibuster rules and make it harder for the GOP to block confirmation of President Barack Obama's nominees.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell, with his eyes on the political road ahead and a GOP-damaging partial government shutdown in the rearview mirror, chalked the Senate shift up to "broken promises, double standards and raw power — the same playbook that got us Obamacare."
The calculation seems to be that there will be time for Republicans to retaliate for the Democratic maneuver that swept away generations of precedent in the tradition-bound Senate. The change didn't eliminate filibusters, and a spirit of revenge actually may give the GOP an incentive to launch them in greater numbers.
But not now, when the health care law is seen ever less favorably by the public, and has dragged the president's approval ratings to the lowest levels of his time in the White House.
Each time McConnell mentions the shift in Senate procedure, he's tugged back to health care.
"It's basically the same debate," he said Thursday, adding that Democrats are trying to shift the public's attention away from the president's health care overhaul.
He singled out Sen. Jeff Merkley. "If I were a senator from Oregon, which hasn't enrolled a single person yet for its 'Obamacare' exchange, I would probably want to shift the focus, too," McConnell said.
Merkley is one of several Democrats seeking re-election next year who are so dismayed by the administration's performance on health care that they support legislation to weaken a core concept of the program. Asked about McConnell's remarks, he concentrated on GOP filibusters: "Let's focus on the reality — the American people want this institution to function."
The health care bill he supports, filed by Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, would require insurance companies to continue selling coverage permanently that is deemed substandard under the health care law.
The short-term effect would be to reverse millions of cancellations that insurance companies have sent out to consumers in recent weeks. Also, to permit the bill's backers to claim political credit for easing any pain on constituents.
The longer-term consequence would likely be higher costs for millions of consumers seeking coverage that meets Obamacare standards, because those customers on average are older, sicker, and more expensive to insure than the group that would stay on cheaper, less comprehensive plans.
Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, also seeking a new term next year, favors a two-year requirement for insurance companies to renew existing individual coverage.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, another Democrat whose name will be on the ballot in 2014, favors a two-month delay in the law's requirement for individuals to purchase insurance or face a penalty. The extension could be longer if the healthcare.gov website isn't "fully functional" by Dec. 1, she said in a statement.
Nor is the health care overhaul front and center on Shaheen's official Senate website. The site features a rolling series of images that tout her work to pass bipartisan energy legislation, attack deficits, overhaul the nation's budget process, stamp out sexual assaults in the military and celebrate the opening of a new bridge linking New Hampshire with Maine.
Republican senators appear with Shaheen in three of the images, Obama in none.
In the House, Republicans forced a vote a week ago on legislation to open substandard individual plans to all comers. They drew support from 39 Democrats, and lawmakers in both parties said the number would have been higher had Obama not announced a plan to ease the cancellation problem a day before.
In the Senate, it is unclear if Democratic leaders can keep their restless rank and file from demanding a vote to change the health care law in December.
According to several lawmakers and aides, that will depend in part on the speed of the recovery of the poorly performing website, which suffered from a three-hour lapse in service on Wednesday. It will hinge also on a political calculation, whether Democrats seeking new terms believe they must be seen voting on something — almost anything — to fix the problem.
This is not what Democrats had in mind in 2010 when they passed Obamacare over unanimous Republican opposition.
But it is what Republicans warned would happen, in general if not in specifics. And the polls explain why they would rather keep the focus on health care and not on changes in Senate filibuster procedures that date back a century or more.
Obama's approval ratings, 37 percent in a CBS poll earlier in the week, are at their low point for his presidency, barely a year after he was re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. In the same survey, the health care law was seen favorably by 31 percent of those polled, unfavorably by 61 percent.
Almost exactly 10 months into his second term, immigration legislation is mired in the House, his call for a minimum wage increase has yet to come to a vote, Democrats are divided over negotiations with Iran and the rest of the president's agenda is pinned down in the usual divided-government crossfire.
A change in filibuster procedures that affects only nominations won't turn that in a new direction.
Republicans hope that fallout from the health care law will, and in a path to their liking.
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo is AP's chief congressional correspondent