Sen. Mike Johanns, the soft-spoken Nebraskan, walks from the Russell Building along the concrete underground path to the Capitol when he's needed on the floor for a vote. He's not one to get taken for a ride — not on the Senate subway or by conservative colleagues whose strategy he views with skepticism. Johanns, the former Nebraska governor and Agriculture secretary under George W. Bush, has held back sniping at his Republican colleagues in the internal GOP debate over whether to press Democrats for concessions on Obamacare in return for funding the government.
But his polite manner has not stopped him from critiquing the merits of the plan.
Johanns decided earlier this year he wouldn't seek reelection in 2014, a decision that means he is not glancing over his shoulder at attacks from the right or the left. That also means there's little downside to speaking his mind about what's happening in Congress.
When the architects of the GOP strategy, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, explained the path to victory, Johanns quickly realized what the rest of Washington soon would as well: The plan requires the president and Democrats to back off their signature legislation. It was a nonstarter.
"If that's your strategy? Wow," he said. "Is that the best you can do? Like I said, I didn't get it."
A certain level of political pragmatism could have gone a long way in this case, the thinking goes, and Republicans could have secured more fiscal concessions had they steered clear of trying to short-circuit the Affordable Care Act.
"My advice, when I do speak up, is think about what you're fighting for and make sure the strategy you've chosen actually gets you to a result. I didn't see how this got to a result. I could never understand defunding Obamacare as the strategy for the continuing resolution," Johanns said.
Part of the problem with the strategy is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., whose Senate Democrats have held firm, insists that the House vote on the upper chamber's so-called "clean" continuing resolution.
Now, Republicans in the House and Senate aim to discredit Reid by tying him to the government shutdown in the same way he has tried to taint the GOP. The problem with that is the difficulty in piercing Reid's armor. He doesn't care about the insults, in other words.
"I don't think he's especially bothered by somebody saying this, that, or the other thing," Johanns said. "He's been around a lot of years and fought a lot of fights."
The bigger issue is that focusing on Obamacare takes away from a disciplined and unified focus on fiscal issues, such as enforcing the Budget Control Act caps, which Democrats oppose.
"We somehow got off on a cul-de-sac," Johanns said.
Johanns lends his criticism to a chorus of other Senate Republicans, including Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who characterized the Cruz approach as the "box-canyon" strategy, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who said he thinks the GOP will fold over the shutdown.
The path out of that canyon, to use Corker's metaphor, is easy, according to the Republican skeptics in the Senate. But it's also easier said than done, with both the White House and Reid's Democratic Caucus unwilling to move off their positions.
"I think there's just a point where both sides have to agree that continuing to fight has no redeeming features to it, that the downside of settling beats the beating that you're taking," Johanns said. "I think when both sides reach that conclusion, then it will be resolved."