Mitch McConnell and his GOP leadership team couldn't believe what they were seeing. The plan Speaker John Boehner floated Thursday to lift the debt limit for six weeks – while keeping the government shut down – without any major policy concessions from President Obama had come out of left field.
For months, years even, congressional Republicans had been united in stressing that any hike in the nation's borrowing limit had to be accompanied by White House concessions. This, suddenly, was the opposite.
So when Senate Republicans trekked to the White House Friday for their own meeting with President Obama, they presented a completely different plan than their House colleagues had less than 24 hours earlier. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, offered a package that would lift the debt limit until the end of January and keep the government operating for six months, in exchange for some concessions. Lawmakers would then use that time to craft a broader fiscal agreement.
The dual-track negotiations with the White House are symptomatic of sharp and growing tensions among Republicans on Capitol Hill. Eleven days into the government shutdown, nerves are fraying as GOP lawmakers fight among themselves over tactics – the House versus Senate, moderates versus hardliners. Two polls this week – one from Gallup and one from The Wall Street Journal/NBC News – that showed the Republican Party at record low levels of support have only heightened sensitivities.
"Welcome to the land of frustration," said Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., the chief deputy whip.
Months ago, Boehner had pushed his House colleagues to make their main stand on the debt limit. But the efforts of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and outside activist groups to shut the government to defund or derail the health care law made that impossible. "This is not the ground we chose to fight on but this is the fight we have," said a House Republican leadership aide.
The six-week Boehner package was designed to appease the conservative hardliners in his conference not yet ready to give up the defunding fight without threatening the nation's first-ever default. It, effectively, was an effort to split the fiscal fight into two: an ongoing shutdown battle now and a debt-limit bout in six weeks.
Senate Republicans are sympathetic to the speaker's political predicament and trying to avoid too much GOP-on-GOP friendly fire. "All of us on this side of the building don't want to make any kind of editorial comments about what the House is or isn't doing because we know it's difficult there right now to reach consensus," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
But as they've watched the sinking poll numbers, they are trying to move toward a comprehensive deal – with or without Boehner, Cruz, and unbending elements of the House GOP. Corker said ultimately both issues – ending the shutdown and raising the debt limit – will have to be dealt with simultaneously.
Numerous GOP senators emerged from a 90-minute meeting Friday with Obama encouraged that a deal was not far off. "He seems open to some of the suggestions that I made," Collins said. Challenges remain, chief among them that Obama has pledged not to negotiate until Republicans reopen the government. Collins said that issue "seems to be one of timing for him."
"The problem is, if you don't put it all together in one plan, I don't know that we will be able to get sufficient support to reopen government and to extend the debt limit," she said. "That's why I think it's better to combine them in one plan."
One of the centerpieces of Collins' proposal is to roll back a medical device tax that helps fund the health law. But that is unlikely to satisfy conservatives in the House or Senate. "The current leadership path of shutting down the whole fight resulting in the medical device tax [repeal] isn't the Holy Grail conservatives are looking for," said a senior GOP aide to a conservative senator.
For instance, Republican Rep. Paul Broun, who is running for Georgia's open Senate seat, declared on Friday that nothing – not even an overhaul of entitlement programs that Republicans have long sought – would garner his vote if the health law remains on the books. "I will vote against any deal which does not stop Obamacare for all Americans, regardless of any promises made to compromise on the budget, tax reform, or changes to entitlement programs down the road," Broun said.
Talks between both House Republicans and Senate Republicans and the White House are increasingly focused on setting up a framework for a broad fiscal deal. Even the Boehner package – which Obama formally rejected Friday – was an effort "to get some space to negotiate a bigger fiscal framework," according to the House GOP leadership aide. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., one of the most influential Republicans in the House, outlined a similar path in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this week.
Despite public polling and signs that the GOP appetite for the Obamacare fight is subsiding, Cruz insists he's winning. He received a raucous response at the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday. "The Democrats are feeling the heat," he told GOP activists.
When told of Cruz's remark, Corker leaned back and let loose a laugh.
"Thankfully, we're finally focused on the right thing, which is fiscal issues," he said. "That's what debt ceilings are about. That's what CRs are about … Finally we're on the right subject after a long and winding rabbit trail."
Michael Catalini contributed. contributed to this article.