Senate Republicans are trying to coalesce around a series of talking points as their leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, negotiates with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the days before a potential government default.
But perhaps the most confounding of all lines GOP senators pushed on the morning political talk shows Sunday is that they both wanted to end the shutdown and wouldn't vote for any plan that can't garner a majority of House Republican votes — which, at this point, seems more like the unicorn of budget frameworks than it does a likely political possibility.
If there were a viable plan to reopen the government that could have been supported by the majority of House Republicans, they already would have sent it to the Senate and it would be on President Barack Obama's desk. But the impasse between the House GOP and the White House has left it to Senate leaders to cobble together a deal, 13 days into a government shutdown and with less than 100 hours before the nation's borrowing authority runs out. As the deadline approaches, the tension between GOP senators saying they won't vote for anything that could jeopardize Speaker John A. Boehner's leadership and the need to strike a deal will intensify.
"Here's what I am worried about: a deal coming out of the Senate that a majority of Republicans can't vote for in the House, that really does compromise Speaker Boehner's leadership. And after all this mess is over, do we want to compromise John Boehner as leader of the House? I don't think so," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on ABC's "This Week." "So I'm not going to vote for any plan that I don't think can get a majority of Republicans in the House, understanding that defunding Obamacare and delaying it for a year is not a realistic possibility now."
This last piece of Graham's quote is key, because there are still a significant number of House Republicans — urged on by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and conservative grass-roots groups — who, unlike Graham, don't believe that dismantling the health care law is not a "realistic possibility."
Even as the focus shifts in the Senate to spending levels (where establishment Republicans would have preferred it all along), House Republicans are grappling with giving up the health care fight. It's unclear whether a majority of Republicans would vote for a continuing resolution that doesn't include a significant Obamacare concession.
In the Senate, members of varying experience levels acknowledge that they are in a worse position nearly two weeks into this standoff based on the health care law than they were before it:
"I believe that the defunding strategy was a failing strategy from the beginning, although I opposed the health care law," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who was elected during the tea party wave of 2010. "Look where we are from the beginning, the government is shutdown, obamacare exchanges have still opened, so I just disagreed with the strategy."
"We're on a fools errand when we say we're going to defund Obamacare," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "We could get lower in the polls — we're down to blood relatives and paid staffers now."
Meanwhile, aside from the Obamacare fight, the issue of spending levels continues to draw Senate attention. As we reported Saturday, Reid is now pushing for a roll back of sequester levels imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. This is not sitting well with Senate or House Republicans either.
"I don't see one," Graham said when asked if he saw an imminent resolution to both the government shutdown and debt limit impasses. "If you break the spending caps, you're not going to get any Republicans in the Senate."
Conservative Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, dismissed the idea that the House could back a plan that would undermine the spending levels set in Budget Control Act.
"Break the spending caps? I don't see any way that you'd see Republicans go for that," Jordan said on "Fox News Sunday." "I don't think you're going to see House Republicans — I mean, we are best when we stay united on basic principles of less government, less spending, keeping taxes low. You're going to see us stay united that we are not going to increase spending."
Jordan added that he didn't expect Boehner to allow a deal that would pass primarily with Democratic votes on the House floor.
"That's not even being talked about. We're focused on the principles I've described. We're focused on addressing the underlying debt problem, and ... we're also focused on Obamacare," Jordan said in response to the question of whether Boehner could lose his gavel in such a scenario.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.