What’s the fight about? Republicans struggle to explain

Updated

Republicans think Obamacare is so destructive that they watched the government shut down when Democrats refused to change the law.

But two days later something strange has happened: Republicans aren’t coming up with new ways to try to dismantle or delay it.

Instead, they’re pushing dead-end mini bills that would fund popular parts of the government that President Barack Obama has promised to veto.

So as the shutdown drags on and Obamacare falls off the negotiating table, it’s left Republicans struggling to answer a basic question: What’s the fight even about?

Even Rep. Mark Meadows, who spearheaded the fight in the House to defund Obamacare in exchange for keeping the government open, has a hard time explaining.

“This fight now has become about veterans, and about National Guard folks that perhaps—reservists that are not getting paid. That’s where the fight is today,” Meadows told reporters. “Obamacare is mandatory spending, it’s going on.”

Describing phone calls from constituents asking why the government is closed, Meadows doesn’t cite Obamacare, but blames Democrats for being unwilling to fund individual parts of the government.

“My strategy is you take the negative input and say, ‘why is this not open?’” said Meadows, referring to angry calls from constituents. “The strategy is right now what we’ve got to get the government open, get it funded, and get the other side to start negotiating.”

Other leaders of the shutdown-over-Obamacare fight have also dropped the gauntlet.

Sen. Mike Lee acknowledged that the Senate would simply halt any defunding effort during the shutdown. “So in light of that, let’s leave Obamacare for another day and not hold the vast majority of government functions hostage when the vast majority of government functions don’t have anything to do with the implementation and enforcement of Obamacare,” Lee said on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

And within the 48 hours, Republicans have already shifting to fiscal issues well beyond Obamacare, as the debt ceiling approaches. As the National Review’s Robert Costa reports, Boehner has started reaching out to Republican members in hopes of crafting a “grand bargain” on the budget, potentially lumping the stopgap budget and debt-ceiling together.

Asked earlier this afternoon what they wanted out of a big fiscal negotiation that included both the budget and the debt-ceiling, Republicans hit on flash points with nary a mention of Obamacare.

“For example, tax reform, the Keystone XL Pipeline, other pro-growth strategies,” said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas. “We know over the long term we need to take the first steps to saving Social Security and Medicare…those will be our priorities.”

Brady still stressed the need to undo Obamacare subsidies for Congressional employees through the stopgap budget negotiations. But behind the scenes, Rep. Paul Ryan is leading the push towards broad fiscal ones, not Obamacare. “We want a budget agreement that gets the debt under control,” he said on Monday.

That doesn’t mean that Republicans are ready to fold entirely: Even if they abandon the quest over Obamacare, President Obama and Democrats are expected to hold firm on their refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling. And there isn’t much time to work out a fiscal grand bargain

before the October 17 deadline—particularly as Congress has failed to do so for two years already, despite the forcing mechanism of sequestration in 2011’s debt ceiling fight.

But the flagging crusade against Obamacare points to a fundamental weakness in party’s budget strategy. “That’s what happens when you get to a dead end,” said Rep. Peter King, the leading dissenter inside his caucus.

Some Republicans are already worried about saving face.

“We aren’t going to be disrespected,” said Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.

Watch Suzy Khimm on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” discussing the Republicans:

What's the fight about? Republicans struggle to explain

Updated