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For Republicans, Obamacare is the gift that will keep on giving

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition "Road to Majority" conference in Washington
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition "Road to Majority" conference in Washington

By Caren Bohan and Gabriel Debenedetti

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In its current disarray, Obamacare is providing Republicans with a steady stream of stories that any campaign manager would consider priceless: tales of ordinary people, some dreadfully ill, with canceled health insurance thanks to President Barack Obama's healthcare law.

But what if the HealthCare.gov website gets fixed soon, as the Obama administration has promised, and canceled policies get replaced long before the November 2014 mid-term congressional elections and the 2016 presidential contest? What if the memories fade?

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), said he isn't worried. There's more Obamacare trouble to come, he said, and more stories to be used by Republicans for many years.

"It's not going to get any better," said Priebus. "It's going to be long-lasting. It's going to be deep."

He and other Republican strategists are counting on the unhappiness over Obamacare to paint a picture of Democratic incompetence and overreach, a narrative they hope will give them control of the Senate in 2014 and the White House two years later.

But they had high hopes, since dashed, for other administration missteps too.

With little success, they have sought to prolong the shelf-lives of controversies earlier this year over IRS treatment of conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status, and the administration's handling of the September 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, when four Americans including an ambassador were killed.

OBAMACARE NOT LIKE BENGHAZI

Priebus said the difference between those Republican issues and Obamacare is night and day.

"The difference is Obamacare is hitting every single person in their mailbox and in their pocketbooks. It's hitting their lives dead center. That's the difference, and that's why Obamacare is not going anywhere ...."

"We don't need to connect the dots," he said. "When somebody gets a cancellation notice and they're losing their insurance, you don't need the RNC making that case. That case is being made right in somebody's living room and kitchen table."

Republican confidence in the long-term, vote-getting power of Obamacare follies stems from the fact that the full healthcare law is just beginning to roll out, with all of its many parts. As each one clicks in, Priebus and other Republican leaders see opportunities.

One will come when some people who have bought insurance through HealthCare.gov realize that a physician they prefer is not included in their insurance company's network.

Another cited by Republicans may present itself in January, 2015, when the "employer mandate" takes effect, requiring companies with 50 or more full-time employees to obtain coverage for their workforce or pay a penalty of as much as $3,000 per employee. The employer mandate was to take effect this year, but was postponed by the administration in July.

Republicans contend the provision will result in job losses because firms with close to 50 employees will limit their hiring to avoid that threshold and have to pay for insurance.

The debate over the employer mandate has faded somewhat because Obama last summer decided to push back its start.

But Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and former policy adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, said it will become a potent issue for Republicans next summer as companies begin planning for the start of the mandate.

PENALTY WILL CLICK IN

Yet another opportunity for Republicans could present itself sometime between the winter of 2014 and the spring of 2015, when Americans who have ignored the "individual mandate" requirement that they obtain insurance are reminded that they too will have to pay a penalty.

Representative Steve Scalise, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative group in the House of Representatives, said legislation proposing to suspend penalties on people who decline to purchase insurance will be a big priority for the House, which is under Republican control.

Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, said his party will continue to push for Obamacare's repeal. "But in the meantime, however long that takes, we should at least be able to get an agreement from the president to suspend the penalties that are in place that would hit families if they didn't buy a product that they're not even able to buy," he said.

While the Senate is in Democratic hands, Democratic senators in close races might find it difficult to oppose such a measure.

Finally, if and when the government starts compensating insurance companies that wound up with too many unhealthy enrollees, Republicans will be prepared to call it a bailout.

Senator Marco Rubio, a possible 2016 presidential contender, is already doing that. The Florida Republican has introduced legislation taking aim at a provision in the healthcare law known as "risk corridors" that would shield insurance companies against losses they would incur if they end up having to cover a large proportion of costly, sick patients.

Despite all its rollout troubles, Democrats argue that as people experience the benefits of Obamacare, it will be hard for Republicans to campaign on a platform that calls for taking them away.

"Republicans feel good about themselves — that they have a strong argument," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter. "But that argument has diminishing returns over time."

Priebus disagrees. "Our case against Obamacare is being made by the daily lives and the facts that are being unveiled every single day," he said.

It will be an advantage not just in House and Senate races in 2014, he said, but also races for governor and in the 2016 presidential election

"Obamacare will impact every race in this country," Priebus said.

He's not alone in thinking this. Many Democrats, fearful of losing in 2014, have warned the White House to fix the website or see party members distancing themselves from it.

Fixed or not, Priebus is confident that Obamacare will remain a good target. It's "like an aircraft carrier," he said. "It doesn't move very quickly."

(Editing by Fred Barbash and Philip Barbara)

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