WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio carefully managed his opposition to the health care law during the government shutdown but with that over and the Obamacare website a technological mess, he's going full throttle.
The Florida Republican has been all over national TV news, calling for delays in the law because of the problems. At the same time he's expressing concern for people trying to sign up, Rubio is not backing away from broader desires to dismantle the law.
His actions represent a shift in direction of the GOP, which was badly hurt by the shutdown but still sees Obamacare as its No. 1 target.
And Rubio is putting himself back into the spotlight as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has taken the brunt of criticism for the party's plummeting public approval. When hundreds of activists descend on Capitol Hill next week in an attempt to revive talks about immigration reform, Rubio, who played a lead role earlier this year, will be focused on health care.
"I have a well documented and consistent opposition to Obamacare, and I remain convinced the law is going to have to be repealed because it's going to be a disaster," Rubio said Friday in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. (He began the morning on CNN.) "But my focus now is helping real people avoid real damage. We are starting to hear more and more from people who are starting to be impacted by it."
Rubio has proposed legislation to delay the mandate that people have insurance until six months after the health care marketplace website is working correctly. Other lawmakers, including a growing number of Democrats, have called the enrollment period to be extended.
But as pressure builds, the White House is resisting those calls. On Friday, Jeffrey Zients, the man appointed to fix healthcare.gov, said it would be operational in a month.
"If they're right and this is an easy fix," Rubio said, "then they should be supportive of my plan. It will be rendered meaningless by their work. I think the fact that they're not supportive of it indicates that they know it may take longer than they are letting on to make the site functional, if ever."
Rubio cited news this week that Florida Blue, a division of Blue Cross Blue Shield, had informed 300,000 that their policies were changing because of the Affordable Care Act. "Now those people next year, they don't have insurance," Rubio said Tuesday on Fox's The O'Reilly Factor.
But while the law had a clear effect, the whole story was not told. Florida Blue said it would move people to another plan meeting the law's higher standards. "Nobody is throwing anybody off a cliff," Florida Blue spokesman Mark Wright told PolitiFact Florida, which rated Rubio's claim Mostly False.
Rubio's response Friday was that the change still violated President Barack Obama's vow that anyone who liked their current insurance could keep it.
"This bill is very narrowly focused and that is you should not enforce the mandate — no fines, no penalties — until the website is working," Rubio said.
The White House dismissed Rubio's proposal, citing his longstanding opposition to the law.
"Republicans who have said it is their mission to eliminate, decimate, sabotage Obamacare from the beginning, who were willing with great glee to shut the government down because of their opposition to Obamacare — we have to take their proposals with a grain of salt," Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "I don't think they're filled with sincerity about — a sincere desire to improve the system."
The 16-day government shutdown this month came after Republicans insisted on pushing a short-term budget that did not include money for health care reform. Rubio joined with Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, but as the actual impasse came to pass he was less visible or focused on other issues, Iran, for example. National news stories generally did not mention him, which was fortuitous as the public blamed Republicans more than Democrats.
But when it was over and the website problems — which were buried by the shutdown — became more evident, Rubio emerged with gusto and has been on TV daily. There's no risk railing against a website that has frustrated millions.
Though Rubio avoided being too closely associated with Cruz in national news coverage, Democrats are eager to make that link. The Democratic National Committee this week paid for robocalls in the home states of Rubio, Cruz and Lee.
"Sen. Rubio was an architect of the strategy that shut down our government and took us to the brink of economic collapse," the Florida call stated. It instructed people to call Rubio's office in Washington "and tell him please stop. Stop his dangerous actions right now."
Michael Czin, DNC spokesman, said in an interview that Rubio was being hypocritical, trying to kill the law but then expressing concern about the website problems.
"He just has no credibility. He's not looking for solutions. He's looking for yet another way to undermine the law," Czin said.
"That served no purpose other than trying to scare people," Czin said.
But the website problems have made Democrats nervous and some align with Rubio's call for delays. A number of Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 have suggested extending the enrollment period, now set to end March 31, or delay the tax penalties for people who do not have coverage.
Ten senators, led by Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking for an enrollment extension. And Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wants a one-year delay of the insurance mandate.
Sen. Bill Nelson, Rubio's Democratic counterpart in Florida, did not go that far but said the website needs to be fixed and after it is, someone should be fired.
Rubio's focus on the health care law ensures he will not be engaged on immigration reform. He helped write a sweeping Senate bill that was approved in June but the issue is languishing in the House. Next week 600 conservative activists will spread across Washington to rally support. Rubio in an interview said he was unaware of that but noted the effort would be concentrated on the House.
"The House deserves the time and space to figure out what it is they can support," said Rubio, who took a beating from conservatives over the issue.