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WASHINGTON – Leading Republicans used Obamacare as an epithet for nearly four years – but now, suddenly, it seems they don’t want to talk about it all that much.

Struggling to find their way out of a government shutdown that Republicans forced in an attempt to defund or delay the massive health reform law, both House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., this week wrote op-eds in major newspapers suggesting possible solutions. Neither demanded major changes to Obamacare.

And as Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill worked Friday to craft offers aimed at ending the shutdown and raising the federal debt ceiling, they weren’t even discussing transformative changes to the health law.

What happened?

Well, it seems the people got their say.

Establishment Republicans in Washington say that, day by day and poll by poll, it became clear to them that the fight to end Obamacare via government shutdown is a political disaster for the GOP.

The full extent of that disaster was spelled out in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday in which respondents blamed Republicans over Democrats for the shutdown by a 22-point margin.

Worse yet, 70 percent said congressional Republicans were putting politics ahead of the country in the shutdown standoff, compared to 51 percent who said that of President Obama.

And overall, the Republican Party’s favorability rating stood at 24 percent – the lowest in the poll’s two-decade history. By comparison, even Obamacare seems popular: 38 percent of the people surveyed said the health reform law was a good idea, which is up seven points in a month.

“That is an ideological boomerang,” Bill McInturff, the GOP pollster who completed the survey with Democrat Peter Hart, told NBC. “As the debate has been going on, if there is a break, there is a break against the Republican position.”

It’s a break that Republican lawmakers from Western New York seem to have been sensing since shortly after the shutdown began.

As far back as last week, Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said: “Right now, to be stuck on the word ‘Obamacare’ and this or that is rhetoric that is not helpful. It’s better to say: Which aspects of Obamacare do we agree are hurting the economy and hurting workers?”

To that end, Collins last week held a hearing of the subcommittee he chairs that focused on the provision of the health law that defines full-time workers as those who work a mere 30 hours a week.

Combined with the health law’s requirement that companies with 50 or more full-time employees offer health insurance, that provision could cause employers to trim their workers’ hours or limit hiring, Collins said.

Fixing that could be part of a narrower approach to addressing the problems with Obamacare that even concern Democrats, Collins said.

“That would be a common-sense solution,” he said.

Similarly, Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, has been narrowing his Obamacare demands every few days.

While saying he still favors defunding or delaying the law, he said in an interview this week that more modest reforms could be included in the broader budget solution he’s pushing. Those modest reforms could include an end to a tax on medical devices and more stringent income verification requirements for those getting subsidies to buy health insurance under the law.

Asked why he had changed his approach on Obamacare, Reed said: “I came here to do something. We do live in a time of divided government and what I am envisioning here would probably require help from the other side.”

Such admissions of reality come less than two weeks after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his 30 to 40 tea party acolytes in the House dragooned House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, into pursuing the shutdown strategy even though, according to House aides, Boehner initially opposed it.

The resulting shutdown has led to the furlough of 800,000 workers and a torrent of bad publicity for anyone who might have favored the shutdown strategy.

Stories about those struggling with the shutdown have become a staple of local news reports everywhere. So have poignant pictures such as the one from NBC that showed a small boy wearing a teddy-bear hat while standing beneath a sign at the National Zoo that says: “The Zoo is temporarily closed.”

On top of all that, the leading stock market indicators all moved downward for days until signs of a budget deal started emerging Thursday.

“Wall Street itself has become very, very leery of this tactic,” said Rep. Joe Crowley, D-Queens, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

In the midst of it all, Cruz and his tea party followers are vowing to continue the fight.

Speaking at a Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday, Cruz said: “I’m going to suggest a model for how we turn this country around in the next couple of years. And it is the model we have been following together for the last couple of months to stop that train wreck, that disaster, that nightmare that is Obamacare.”

But with the public turning on Cruz’s idea of refusing to fund the government unless Congress and the president agree to defund the president’s signature accomplishment, other Republicans are turning on Cruz and his strategy.

“It was never a strategy that was sensible,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Bloomberg Television. “If you’re a Constitutionalist, if you’re somebody who understands how our democracy works, it’s hard to pass a law when you have the majority in one body” which is all the Republicans have, given that Democrats control the Senate and the presidency.

Corker described the Cruz strategy as “a box canyon,” and Rep. Pete King, a Long Island Republican who opposed the shutdown strategy from the start and who appeared with Corker, wasn’t any more kind.

“The strategy of the tea party, of the Cruz Republicans, Ted Cruz Republicans, worked so badly,” King said.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com