Now that Congress can take a pass on authorizing military strikes on Syria, they can get down to the expected business of the fall session — passing a budget.  Republicans plan to make ObamaCare a big issue in the three-phase process of writing a continuing resolution, raising the debt ceiling, and finalizing the FY2014 budget.  They have a wave of public revulsion over the Affordable Care Act on their side, as CNN’s latest poll showed, with support for ObamaCare dropping to its lowest level in the series, especially among its target constituencies:

According to the poll, support for Obamacare appears to be dropping.

In January 51% said they favored all or most of the provisions in the new law. Now that figure is down to 39%.

Support has dropped in virtually all demographic categories, but it has fallen the farthest among two core Democratic groups – women and Americans who make less than $50,000.

“Those are also the two groups that are most likely to pay attention to health insurance issues, and possibly the ones most likely to be affected by any changes,” adds Holland. “That may be particularly true for lower-income Americans who are most likely to have part-time jobs, be on Medicaid, or not currently have health insurance and thus be the first to have to navigate the new system.”

On the flip side, those who oppose most or all of the ACA’s provisions has risen to 57%, and the momentum will grow as more of the economic consequences develop.  Trader Joe’s just canceled its coverage for part-time employees, a worker-friendly policy that had won the retailer kudos from its largely progressive clientele over the past years, and more employers are looking for part-time workers to avoid ObamaCare than ever.

The demographics of this question are the most fascinating, though, as CNN highlights.  It’s still popular among Democrats (70/26), liberals (61/32) and barely among “non-whites” (51/44), but that’s about it. It’s slightly underwater among 18-34YOs now (46/49), and way underwater among all other age demos, with opposition at 59% or higher.  Independents hate it (31/64), and “moderates” now clearly oppose it too, by a double-digit gap (42/54). In the working class, where the subsidies are intended to buy support, it’s now failing by 38/58.

That still doesn’t make it easy for Republicans to win this battle.  The same poll shows the GOP most at risk in a government shutdown scenario, with 51% ready to blame Republicans and only 33% for Obama.  That proportion is remarkably consistent throughout the non-partisan demos, although it narrows a little among independents (45% and 33%, respectively).

The GOP needs to tread carefully, as I argue in my column today for The Fiscal Times, and tread effectively, too:

Defunding would certainly be the most complete solution. That would create at least a de facto delay for a year for some of the ACA functions, but not all of them. Most of the funding for Obamacare comes from statutory spending and not budgetary spending, which takes the context out of the budget fight altogether. A recent Congressional Research Service analysis requested from Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) showed that the IRS would still collect taxes, state and federal ACA exchanges would still operate, and most importantly, HHS would still fund subsidies for health insurance through them.

If the goal is to stop the subsidies, then the defunding strategy would not succeed, not unless its backers could get 60 votes in the Senate for a complete repeal of the entire ACA, along with Obama’s signature on it. That opportunity slipped away at the last election.

What about the delay strategy? Grassroots conservatives dislike this option as a kick-the-can-down-the-road strategy, but it has its advantages. First, a delay of the individual mandate and the ACA exchanges would actually achieve the goal of shutting down the subsidies, something that defunding won’t accomplish. Second, the Obama administration has provided ample precedent for delaying key parts of the ACA, both on its own and through Congress, complete with presidential signatures blessing them.  Again on Senator Coburn’s request, the CRS detailed 19 instances in which the White House either approved Congressional delays on the ACA or instituted them administratively – most notoriously on the employer mandates and the insurer out-of-pocket caps, both of which cut against consumers while imposing a mandate to force them into the system anyway.  …

While Obama would refuse to sign off on a repeal, the dichotomy of leaving consumers to twist in the wind while employers and insurers get valuable breaks might be enough for the White House to back down temporarily from this fight.  After his Syria retreat, Obama has burned so much capital with fellow Democrats who publicly called for war just to see Obama back away that he may not have much choice but to let them off the hook with constituents angry over Obamacare.

Republicans will have the public and the higher ground of responsible policy on their side with that strategy, that battleground, and that goal in mind until the 2014 midterm election gives them the opportunity to take the fight farther.

Yesterday, Reuters reported that the GOP seems to be coalescing around a delay strategy on the debt-ceiling fight, and the defunding effort on the CR:

Floating a strategy for thwarting “Obamacare” in autumn fiscal debates, House Republican leaders on Tuesday pledged to demand a one-year delay to the health reform law in any deal to raise the federal debt limit.

They also unveiled a strategy to withhold money to implement Obamacare in connection with a stop-gap funding measure that would keep government agencies open from October 1 to December 15.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told House Republicans in a closed-door meeting that delaying all or part of Obamacare would be a key goal in the debt limit debate, party aides said. Reuters first reported that the delay strategy was under consideration in August.

I’d rather they swap the two.  The GOP is not going to play chicken on the debt-ceiling fight all the way to the finish, which we’ve already seen, and Democrats are not going to defund ObamaCare in a CR fight — and defunding won’t stop the exchanges and the subsidies anyway. Force Democrats to defend the individual mandate in the CR fight, and they’re likelier to cave as ObamaCare gets more and more unpopular.  If they do, Obama is more likely to sign the CR with the delay rather than the defunding, which (a) won’t stop ObamaCare and (b) will never get out of the Senate anyway.

Update; The House took action today on the delay front, explicitly about subsidies and fraud:

The House passed a bill Thursday to ban new subsidies to help people buy health insurance until the Obama administration enacts a new verification system to ensure benefits go only to those who are eligible.

Democrats say the bill, which has no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate, would unnecessarily delay subsidies slated to start next year.

Thursday’s vote was the 41st by House Republicans to repeal, de-fund or change the health care law since it was passed in 2010 without a single Republican vote. A few changes have been enacted, but the effort has largely been unsuccessful.

The 235-191 vote was mostly along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. …

Republicans say there aren’t enough safeguards to prevent fraud. They say federal regulations issued over the summer would enable people to get subsidies without adequately verifying their income. The bill would delay the subsidies until the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services certifies that they will only go to people who are eligible.

“This bill would protect American taxpayers from the staggering amount of fraud and abuse in Obamacare exchanges,” said Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. the main sponsor of the bill.

That’s a good start.