WASHINGTON —It was supposed to be a principled assault on the health care reform law, but the fight paralyzing Capitol Hill has played out as badly as predicted for Republicans.
The opening roar turned into a confusing and frantic approach amid a struggle for control among hard-line conservatives and the GOP's more moderate establishment.
No matter how it ends — House leaders canceled a vote Tuesday evening amid growing conservative revolt — the Republican Party likely will have little to show for the shutdown effort except bleak poll numbers that some fear could carry into the 2014 elections.
"This was all very foreseeable. Everybody said we will get blamed, and we did. Everybody said we will never get Obama to repeal Obamacare, and he won't," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, frustrated at a missed opportunity to address long-term budget issues.
"I'm a proud conservative Republican," Rooney said. "I believe we are spending too much money. I believe that the debt is getting compounded, and it's going to skyrocket more and more if we don't do something about it. This was our opportunity, in a divided government, to get something that maybe isn't 100 percent of what we like. But instead we went for 100 percent of what we wanted. It didn't work, shockingly. How could you not be concerned? We're in the toilet."
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday shows 74 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Republicans are handling the budget impasse, up 11 points from when the standoff began Oct. 1.
Rooney and others say Democrats' refusal to negotiate should not be ignored. Sixty-one percent of Americans dislike how Democrats have acted. At the same time, some Republicans feel pressure from constituents not to cut deals.
"They think we're caving. They think we're not doing enough," to attack Obamacare, said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., referring to the same poll showing just 49 percent of Republican voters approve of their representation in Congress. "What's important is what our districts are saying. I checked the calls today and 95 percent are in favor of doing what we're doing now."
His comment reveals one of the driving forces behind the gridlock in Washington over an array of issues. Most House members, Republicans and Democrats, are tucked into districts carefully drawn to match their political leanings, alleviating the need for compromise.
"When we go back to the district, I get great feedback from the people that are supporters," tea party-backed Rep. Ted Yoho of Gainesville told Fox Business Network on Monday night. He added on CNN Tuesday that he ran last year on "defunding, burying and getting rid of Obamacare. . . . For us to capitulate, I think would be wrong."
The battle between the staunch conservative wing of the party that Fleming and Yoho represent and a more moderate side has shaken GOP leaders as they look to the midterm elections and a handful of Senate seats that could give them control of the chamber. Democrats, meantime, are more optimistic about netting the 17 seats needed to win back the House.
The discord has also stymied an effort to offer a more positive agenda for a party that lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. Immigration reform, which became a burning cause in the Senate immediately after the last election, is dormant in the House.
"We have to be for something, not just against something," said Sally Bradshaw, a Florida Republican strategist who helped write a post-election road map for the party. "We have to give voters a sense of a hopeful future under GOP leadership. We have to embrace diversity in our party and see that as opportunity, not challenge. We're just not there yet."
Bradshaw credited the Republican National Committee for taking steps but said she was "a little discouraged" over the turmoil on Capitol Hill.
Senior Republicans warned against taking an absolutist view on destroying Obamacare out of simple math: Democrats control the Senate and White House.
"I don't mind fighting, but there's also a time to understand the limits of the fight," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how this ends."
Led by newcomer Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and pushed by influential outside groups such as the Heritage Foundation, enough Republicans agreed to make Obamacare a target.
The goal kept moving, however, from defunding the law to delaying it to basically abandoning it as Thursday's debt ceiling deadline approaches. House Republicans tried Tuesday to float a plan that would make small changes to the law, such as scrapping a tax on medical devices, but then retreated. By evening the plan had crumbled.
The political consequences seemed not lost on Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. He was with Cruz in demanding a budget showdown but has turned attention elsewhere. In a speech before Christian conservatives last week, Rubio didn't mention health care, saying the "real crisis" was an erosion of the American Dream. On Tuesday, as senators signaled alarm over a new House budget proposal, Rubio sat in his seat preparing a speech about Iran and nuclear weapons.
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]