John Boehner is caught between moderates in his conference who want him to cave and fund the government and tea partiers who want him to dig in on Obamacare.
His solution: fool them with procedure.
Boehner's taken the fight with Democrats away from policy into the technical world of Congressional rules, leaving his conference to argue over how to make a deal -- not the substance of one.
Monday night, he called for a conference committee to discuss funding the government. On Tuesday, he proposed a series of small bills funding popular government operations like national parks and veterans' benefits, as well as the local D.C. government—without any strings attached.
The tactic allows Boehner to look like he's still uniting his conference behind something -- even if it they're moving no closer to a deal.
"It's an important messaging tool," Congressman Phil Gingrey of Georgia said of the latest moves. "The main hashtag is: 'let's talk.'"
But just like the idea of a conference committee, the idea of small spending bills looks dead on arrival too. Within hours, the White House threatened a presidential veto.
"These piecemeal efforts are not serious, and they are no way to run a government," White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said in a statement. "If House Republicans are legitimately concerned about the impacts of a shut down -- which extend across government from our small businesses to women, children and seniors -- they should do their job and pass a clean CR to reopen the government."
Democrats already agreed to a bill funding the military, but from hereon in top lawmakers say the only acceptable option is a clean budget funding the rest of the government. Republicans could have probably predicted as much. A Democratic House aide noted the House GOP will use a procedure that requires two-thirds of the vote, rather than a simply majority. Typically suspension of the rules is used to expedite non-controversial bills, but in this case, the procedure is setting the bills up to fail.
"Maybe they want House Democrats to bring it down so they can cry about how unreasonable we are," the aide said.
Passing those bills and going to conference is not really the point, though. By picking fights over issues unrelated to the underlying Obamacare issue, Boehner can sidestep his caucus's ideological minefield. For now at least, they're happy to just interpret his tactical moves through their own ideological lens.
Tea party Congressman Tim Huelskamp often clashes with Boehner, for example, but he's psyched about going to conference.
"You've got to come to the table and negotiate," he said.
What separates Huelskamp from more moderate Republicans is that he's "optimistic" that when Republicans get to conference, Senate Democrats will agree to delay Obamacare despite voting unanimously against the idea this week. Idaho Republican Raul Labrador, another conference supporter, sees a delay plus a one-year budget as the logical middle ground.
"I think Obama actually gets something that he wants, which is to avoid all of these fights, and we can get what we want, which is a one year delay," he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Pennsylvania Republican Pat Meehan recently called for passing a "clean" continuing resolution to fund the government and end the standoff. But on Tuesday he told reporters that conference was the way to go, saying it was "a potential breakthrough" that might produce a deal pleasing all sides. Republicans might even achieve a modest win like dropping the medical device tax.
By papering over the vast gulf between someone like Meehan and someone like Huelskamp on substance, Boehner's latest moves give them time to let the reality of the shutdown set in for members and figure out their endgame.
One possible way off the ledge might be a moderate revolt as the shutdown drags on.
Congressman Peter King has been leading the charge on this front, organizing a high-profile -- and highly unsuccessful -- plot Monday night to derail Boehner's plans and demand a clean continuing resolution to fund the government. He said Tuesday he believed there were 100 Republicans who would vote for one if Boehner brought it to the floor. But not a single one brought it up in when the House GOP met that day.
"All I know is I think this shutdown's a bad idea and I want a clean CR," he said.
King may not be the most reliable whip, but he's hardly alone in his frustrations with the tea party wing. Congressman Devin Nunes of California is telling any reporter who will listen that Cruz's anti-Obamacare group are "lemming suicide bombers." As of Tuesday afternoon, at least eight Republicans had publicly called for giving into Democratic demands and passing a clean CR, according to the Washington Post. A handful of others appear to be moving in the same direction.
Congressman Tom Rooney of Florida told reporters that he saw little chance Democrats would cave on Obamacare and hoped there was a way to transition to a debate over the debt limit, where he thinks Republicans can bargain for spending cuts. And while Rooney may be playing along for now, he said he expected these types of frustrations to boil over for many members pretty soon.
"Give it a couple of days, and I think that you'll see it more palpable," he said.
On All In Tuesday evening, two prominent Republicans--Bruce Bartlett and Michael Lofgren--said GOP lawmakers were acting "like lemmings with suicide vests." Watch their discussion with Chris Hayes: