Both sides continue to view a continuing resolution to keep the government funded temporarily past Sept. 30 as the most likely legislative vehicle to avoid a government shutdown. But those talks are being stymied by the House GOP's internal disagreement on whether defunding Obamacare should be the price they exact from Democrats for allowing the federal government to remain in business. The message from conservatives to their own leaders: shut down the government unless Democrats blink and defund Obamacare or we'll unleash the dogs on you.
While House Republican leaders thought they had worked out a way to appease conservatives on Obamacare -- a show vote to defund Obamacare but steer clear of a shutdown threat -- they were forced to delay that gambit Wednesday amid a mutiny on their right flank.
"There are a lot of discussions going on about how to deal with the CR and the issue of Obamacare. "And so we're continuing to work with our members," Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters Thursday. He said the existing plan is "not quite" defeated, but added: "There are a million options that are being discussed by a lot of people."
Moments later, Senate Democratic leaders flatly dismissed a delay of Obamacare and warned that attempting to do so would lead to a government shutdown.
"I told [Boehner] very directly that all these things they're trying to do on Obamacare is a waste of their time," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told reporters. "Let's stop playing these really juvenile political games."
"Those in touch with reality should understand that passing a clean CR is the right thing to do," he said. "Their direction is a direction to shut down the government. ... If Republican leaders keep giving into tea party demands they must be rooting for a shutdown."
The White House also reiterated Thursday that President Barack Obama would reject efforts to undermine Obamacare. "We will not accept anything that delays or defunds Obamacare," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
The House GOP's pickle is made worse by the fact that they want to avoid a government shutdown because they recognize their party is likely to be blamed for it. But the craving on the right for an all-out war has leaders exploring ways to placate them -- so far to no avail.
"We'll continue to do everything we can to repeal, dismantle or defund Obamacare," Boehner told reporters, praising House passage Thursday of the party's 41st attempt to repeal or dismantle the health care reform law.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) invited Republicans to battle it out over Obamacare in the mid-term elections and try defund the law if they win. "But not at the expense of average Americans," he said. "Republicans should train their efforts to 2014."
"The more reasonable voices will prevail," Schumer said. "But we're going to have to go through a lot of convolution and speeches and paralysis before that happens."
At the end of the day the Obamacare spat, while politically significant in a variety of ways, is not what the real debate over the continuing resolution will be about. The real negotiations will be about what level to fund the government at and what to do about sequestration. But the box that GOP leaders find themselves in over Obamacare could splinter the House majority to such a degree that it hands the initiative to Democrats.
As the shutdown deadline looms, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) warned Thursday that the week-long recess at the end of September may be canceled.
"The anarchists are winning," lamented Reid. He added: "I like John Boehner. I really do. But I do feel sorry for him."