Republicans Recalibrate Their Asking Price to End Shutdown

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Representative Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on October 1, 2013.

With a week left until the debt crisis hits zero hour, Republicans want to talk—but about what?

The fiscal battles roiling the country have become so tangled, as the government shutdown merges into a deadline to increase the debt ceiling, that not only is a solution nowhere in sight, but the players that provoked the fight can’t even agree on the problem. In recent days, the conservative crusade to gut Barack Obama’s healthcare law has been superseded by a fresh push to enact fiscal reforms.

The switch reflects the widespread belief among Republican Congressional leaders and party strategists that the GOP puts itself on firmer political footing by making familiar fiscal priorities, such as cutting spending and reforming wobbly entitlement programs, the centerpiece of its asking price to reopen the government and increase U.S. borrowing authority.

It also represents an admission that shuttering the government in a doomed bid to defund Obamacare is beginning to boomerang on the party. The strategy, championed by Senate conservatives like Ted Cruz and a passel of Tea Party congressman, has “failed miserably,” says Representative Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania.

Senior House Republicans seem to agree, though they would never outright say so. On Wednesday, two top House conservatives—Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, and former Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan—published op-eds in leading newspapers urging Obama to negotiate with the House GOP. Ryan outlined a list of proposals on which the two sides might find common ground, while Cantor assailed the President for his refusal to negotiate. But both pieces were less notable for what they said than for what they didn’t. Ryan did not mention Obamacare, the law over which House Republicans shut down the government. Cantor did so only once, and that was to note that it was just one of many factors at play in the long-building stalemate.

The shift back to fiscal matters makes sense for Republicans, who were able to extract roughly $2 trillion in spending cuts during the 2011 debt ceiling battle. The GOP maintains an advantage with voters on fiscal issues, though the issue has become less important to the public over the last two years as the domestic economic picture brightens. But many of the movement conservatives who picked the fight over Obamacare aren’t ready to let the issue drop.

“We’d give the speaker some flexibility on a short-term debt limit increase to keep the focus where it should be, which is on Obamacare,” Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham told reporters Wednesday morning at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “But any CR that doesn’t address Obamacare is something that we’d be very strongly against.”

As the twin fiscal crises begin to bleed together a week before the debt ceiling deadline, some Republicans are fighting to keep them separate. “We lose everything if we merge the continuing resolution and debt ceiling fights,” writes RedState’s Erick Erickson. “The only path to victory in this shutdown is to keep our fire on Obamacare and our focus on the defunding effort. . . . As long as the conversation stays on the debt ceiling, we are not talking about the deeply unpopular Obamacare.”

The convergence of the crises has been driven by the White House, which is trying to tighten the screws on Republicans by tying the painful government shutdown to the potentially catastrophic consequences of a government default. Obama weeks ago branded a failure to raise the debt limit an “economic shutdown,” employing the same phrasing to help push the fiscal fights together. Rolling the two fights together could solve both at once, rather than allow the GOP to try to extract concessions over each individually.

The additional pressure could help Republicans extricate themselves from a dicey political spot. House Speaker John Boehner has the unenviable task of trying to steer his party toward a plausible settlement without inflaming restive backbenchers who are determined to go to the mat on an unwinnable Obamacare.  At least publicly, Boehner is keeping the pressure on both fights. “On the CR, we’re still fighting to reopen the government and fairness for all Americans under Obamacare,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel wrote in an email to TIME. “On the debt limit is where we’re looking for spending cuts and reforms.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers