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The showdown over the shutdown

It’s a strange, strange political world when North Carolina Republicans Richard Burr and Robert Pittenger occupy the political center. But this is the universe we’ve stumbled into thanks to the far right’s last gasp at killing the Affordable Care Act.

Burr, a stalwart conservative North Carolina senator, is hearing it from Tea Party activists this week after calling their push to shut down the government over Obamacare “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” In response, Tea Party group ForAmerica took a swipe at Burr with a news release and video comparing him to a chicken. (Similar ads targeted five other Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.)

Said ForAmerica president Brent Bozell: “Conservatives are fed up with two-faced politicians like Senator Burr who consistently fail to keep their promises.”

Pittenger, a freshman U.S. representative, also felt some heat this month for telling a town hall questioner that he wouldn’t participate in the shutdown/defund ultimatum. The exchange was captured on video and went viral. “Robert Pittenger Says NO to Defunding Obamacare,” screamed one online Tea Party headline.

These clashes are not unexpected. Activists have targeted the Congressional recess as their last likely chance to kill the Affordable Care Act. Along with ForAmerica, conservative groups Heritage Action and Tea Party Patriots have launched campaigns to use ads and community meetings to get the attention of legislators. In Washington, the defund effort is being spearheaded by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah.

Other Republicans, however, are balking. For sure, neither Pittenger nor Burr are fans of Obamacare. Pittenger has signed on to 15 bills that would repeal or defund the health care law or parts of it, and Burr has repeatedly supported efforts to do the same. But both understand a very basic reality: A measure defunding Obamacare has little to no chance of making it through the Senate, and if it somehow did, President Obama would never bless it with his signature. Shutting down government in response would be a political loser outside of the extreme right.

The alternative for both Republicans and Democrats is to acknowledge that Obamacare is a worthy law that needs some repair. We all know the good: Obamacare provides Americans with coverage previously unavailable or too expensive, and insurance companies cannot turn their back on consumers because of preexisting conditions. Still, the bill is complex and confusing, especially for businesses, and no one knows how the market will respond to launch of the individual mandate and state insurance exchanges. There is and will be work to do.

The White House, so far, has signaled an openness to that. Last month, the administration announced a move they surely didn’t want: delaying a requirement that medium and large companies offer health-care coverage to their employees. The decision invited ridicule from Obamacare’s opponents, and it will result in a million fewer Americans receiving coverage, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But it also showed the administration was listening to business frets about Obamacare’s reporting requirements and tax implications. That flexibility will be critical moving forward.

Such is how Washington works now. Passing major legislation is an exercise in concession-making, and the result is often imperfect. But Obamacare isn’t going to be killed, as lawmakers in both parties understand. The best next step is to work on making it better.

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