How long? Two days? One week? Longer?
Less than a full day into a partial government shutdown, signs of weariness and pressure were already showing Tuesday in the House Republican Conference as members fretted over what was really being accomplished by a nasty stalemate with the Senate.
GOP lawmakers such as Reps. Devin Nunes of California and Peter King of New York continued to be critical of hard-liners in their conference, asserting they were most responsible for pushing Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House leaders into a strategy of relentlessly attacking Obamacare.
"Now they're kind of playing with no cards in their hand, but they don't know that yet," an exasperated Nunes said.
Other House Republicans made similar comments more privately, conceding there may be no way out of this — given the refusals of President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to budge — other than to finally agree to a "clean" bill that would temporarily restart government funding to allow longer-term negotiations. They could also then move on to the next battle over raising the nation's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department has said will be reached by mid-October.
"If you're going to lose a hand, get out as quickly as you can, when there's less money in the pot," one senior Republican said. "We're wasting a lot of time and energy on the preliminary round that is not getting us anywhere. Sooner or later we're going to have to begin negotiations over the debt ceiling."
But is there any face-saving exit for Boehner and his lieutenants? Having started this thing, said another GOP lawmaker, the hard-liners and House GOP leaders can't just call it quits after only 24 hours. "You can't just say, "˜Oh well, that was a big mistake,' " the member said.
Conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said he wished the shutdown was over, too. But he insisted House Republicans are prepared to hold the line, and that all that has to happen for this to end is for Reid "to pick up a phone."
"All we're waiting for is the Senate to actually appoint some negotiators, and actually come to the table," Huelskamp said.
For his part, Boehner on Tuesday publicly accused Obama and Senate Democrats of having slammed the door on negotiating a way out of the shutdown. "This is part of a larger pattern: the president's scorched-earth policy of refusing to negotiate in a bipartisan way on his health care law, current government funding, or the debt limit," Boehner wrote in an op-ed appearing in USA Today.
Reid, though, shined the spotlight squarely on Boehner.
"By refusing to let the House vote on the only bill that will reopen the government, Speaker Boehner is single-handedly keeping the government shut down," Reid said in a statement after the House rejected three stopgap funding bills late Tuesday.
Senate Democratic strategy has hinged on not giving in to Republican demands throughout the debate on a continuing resolution to fund the government, and so far the caucus has remained united.
"All of a sudden, when they find the American people are rebelling against their childish stunt, they say, "˜Oh we've got some other stunt. Let's do piecemeal what we were supposed to have done in the last six months,' " said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., referring to the defeated House bills, which would have restored funding in a piecemeal manner for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the national parks, and the Washington, D.C., government.
"I think it's such a silly thing. Why don't they just do their real work?" Leahy asked.
Democratic senators shot holes not only in the latest offer from the House but also in the Republican strategy.
"If any part of government is shut down, we have a shutdown, and that's gonna cause harm to people, it's gonna hurt our economy, and it's gonna cost taxpayers more money at the end of the day," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. "I don't know what their strategy is. You're saying they're gonna pick winners? Programs? They're trying to get rid of these agencies?"
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the Senate sounded almost plaintive as they criticized Reid for opposing them.
"We want to continue the conversation," said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. "We continue to make these proposals. Hopefully our friends across the aisle will engage with us."
Meanwhile, at the White House, Obama blasted House Republicans for the shutdown, describing their efforts to undermine Obamacare as an "ideological crusade."
Such volleys came on a day when the Senate and the White House quickly shot down the latest House Republican bills that failed to win the necessary two-thirds support because they were considered under a suspension of the rules — meaning a good number of Democrats would have had to go along for passage.
The idea, which had originally been promoted by GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, was to force Democrats to make a tough choice to either vote, or vote against, these popular programs. The notion also was that funding government in such a piecemeal way would be another path to defunding Obamacare, though more slowly.
The White House before the vote panned the strategy as "not serious" and Reid called it "another wacky idea from tea-party Republicans."
The administration and Senate Democratic leaders on Tuesday also continued to dismiss the House's calls for a conference committee to seek a compromise on a stopgap funding bill, saying that they would not negotiate as long as Republicans continued to attach strings to derail Obama's health care reforms — and not while the government is closed. The simple solution, they continued to maintain, is for the House to pass a clean resolution that would temporarily restart government funding.
In a briefing with reporters, White House press secretary Jay Carney said he expected the shutdown to still be ongoing Thursday, though he noted that "House Republicans have the opportunity to reopen the government five minutes from now if they wanted to take that action."
The president plans to make an appearance Thursday at a Washington, D.C., construction company to highlight the impacts that the continued shutdown and a default on the debt would have on the economy and small businesses.
For Republicans like Nunes, who said his phones have been ringing off the hook from callers concerned about the government shutdown, there is exasperation. He said he does not think that the conservatives who supported the approach advocated by Cruz ever really thought it through. But he also said Boehner and House Republicans are letting these members play out their hand.
Despite his concerns, Nunes said that Republicans could be proven right in the end — even with a flawed strategy on the CR — "if the Obamacare rollout is a complete disaster."