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Congress on 'crazy pills'

BuzzFeed's Kate Nocera asked a Republican aide on Capitol Hill yesterday about the likelihood of Republicans shutting down the government at the end of the

BuzzFeed's Kate Nocera asked a Republican aide on Capitol Hill yesterday about the likelihood of Republicans shutting down the government at the end of the month. The congressional staffer responded by emailing Nocera this five-second clip.

For those who can't watch videos online, the clip shows Will Ferrell's character in Zoolander shouting, "Doesn't anyone notice this? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!"

Yes, we've reached the point at which madness has become so pervasive among congressional Republicans that their own staffers think of "crazy pills" when describing the current conditions on Capitol Hill. How encouraging.

At issue, in the short term, is the fact that the government will run out of money in 17 days. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team thought they'd come up with a credible solution, but House Republicans and their allied activist groups promptly killed it, less than a day after GOP leaders unveiled it. Because Boehner is really only the Speaker In Name Only, he has no real influence or control what happens next, and he has no idea how to get out of the mess his own members created.

Indeed, the arithmetic is brutal. There are currently 233 House Republicans, which means Boehner can pass a conservative spending bill that keeps the government's lights on if he loses no more than 15 of his own members (that number goes up slightly if some Blue Dog Democrats break ranks). How many House GOP lawmakers oppose Boehner's plan because it doesn't fully defund "Obamacare"? As of last night, 43.

I emphasize this because we're not just talking about party leaders twisting a few arms to get something done. Dozens of House Republicans are ready to shut down the government unless Democrats agree to take health care benefits away from millions of Americans -- and these lawmakers' position is inflexible.

What do Boehner and GOP leaders intend to do? In a way, that's the funny part -- with very little time remaining, they haven't the foggiest idea.

Consider this amazing behind-the-scenes tidbit.

In a bipartisan meeting Thursday among House and Senate leaders, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) asked Mr. Boehner what other concession could be made to satisfy conservatives, other than defunding the health-care law. The speaker said there was none, according to Republican and Democratic aides briefed on the meeting."Boehner said nothing will appease them but defunding Obamacare," one aide said.

The one thing they want is the one thing they can't have.

Also, the public-private dichotomy is bordering on hilarious. When talking to reporters after bipartisan, bicameral talks yesterday morning, Boehner inexplicably said, "It's time for the president's party to show the courage to work with us to solve this problem," apparently working under the assumption that we're idiots. When talking to policymakers behind closed doors, though, Boehner is desperate, hoping someone will help him clean up his caucus' mess.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) conceded yesterday, "I like John Boehner. I do feel sorry for him."

Reid added, when asked about the likelihood of Republicans shutting down the government in two weeks, "I'm really frightened."

That's understandable. In fact, I imagine the vast majority of Americans aren't giving this much thought, but it's probably time they start. It's unpleasant, but radicalized Republican lawmakers really are prepared to deliberately shut down the government, force a debt-ceiling crisis, jeopardize the full faith and credit of the United States, and do untold damage to the economy -- and all of this is going to play out in the coming weeks, not months.

From where I sit, there are only four ways forward:

1. A paralyzed House does nothing: Boehner can't put together 218 votes for his stop-gap plan, won't work with Democrats on a more moderate compromise, so the process implodes and the government shuts down on Sept. 30 at midnight.

2. Boehner jettisons the extremists: GOP leaders may soon realize that the radicals can't be reasoned with, but Democrats can be. Boehner can scale back the needlessly stupid sequestration cuts, pick up plenty of Democratic votes, pass a continuing resolution, prevent a shutdown, and win broad praise for bipartisan governing.

3. Boehner caves to the radicals: Unwilling to strike a deal with Democrats, Boehner can pass a spending measure that defunds the Affordable Care Act for real. The Senate and the White House will balk, and the government will shut down.

4. Democrats cave: Boehner probably only needs about 20 to 30 House Democrats to vote for his conservative plan that includes the sequester, and if Dems go along, they'll save his butt and prevent a shutdown.

The one thing that I can say with confidence won't happen is that the right winning on health care defunding. There is simply no way Democrats will agree to the right-wing demands on this. As best as I can tell, for Dems, this isn't on the table; it's not open to discussion; and it's not negotiable at any level. Period. Full stop.

That said, what happens next is entirely unclear, though next week is bound to be interesting. I'd say the likelihood of a shutdown at this point is about 65% and climbing.