There’s no need for Republicans to panic. The government shutdown is not some kind of crisis for American governance (although it certainly does not count as best practices either), or for the party. It always seemed unlikely to produce major Democratic concessions, though, and it still does.
Conservatives should therefore calmly assess the options now available to them. As they do so, they should continue to advocate bills to fund portions of the government, such as the National Institutes of Health, countering the media/Democratic spin about Republicans’ intransigence.
Republicans could, alternatively, try to end the impasse by having the House pass a bill that funds the government while also including the Vitter amendment against the health benefits of congressmen and their employees. It would be hard for the Democrats, even with the assistance of the press, to stand for keeping the government shut down in the name of congressional compensation. If they folded, Republicans would score a p.r. win from the shutdown.
An alternative that appears to have the support of Speaker John Boehner is to negotiate a “grand bargain.” Republicans would get tax reform, entitlement reform including changes to Obamacare, and other desired reforms; Democrats would get something they want, such as temporary increases in spending above sequestered levels; and Congress would pair these policies with measures to fund the government and raise the debt limit.
The politics of this adventure seem impossible: The parties are just too far apart on these issues. We very much doubt that Democrats would accept any serious structural entitlement reform, such as premium support for Medicare or reducing the growth rate of initial Social Security benefits. The entitlement reforms they might accept aren’t worth the tax increases they would want in return.
A modest bargain makes more sense than a grand one. Democrats would get a temporary increase in spending, and in return Republicans would get a delay of the fine on people without health insurance. Depending on the amount of spending involved, that deal could be a good one for Republicans. It would be a successful act of resistance to the least popular part of an unpopular law, and would set a precedent for delaying or neutering other parts of the “law of the land” Democrats keep trying to insist is fixed in concrete. Democrats would probably resist, as many of them think the fines are central to the law’s operation. They might go along with it, however, if they are as confident as they claim to be that Obamacare is poised to become popular now that people are set to draw subsidies from it.
Of the options, the most promising seems to us to be the modest bargain, because the potential payoff — a delay in the mandate — would be more valuable than the Vitter amendment, and more likely than Democratic capitulation to a continued shutdown.
Wait it out; send the Democrats a government-opening bill that they would have a hard time blocking; or make a modest deal: Those seem to us to be the available options. In none of these cases would Republicans achieve a policy triumph for the ages. No strategy gets us there on this side of the next two elections. Any of them would be preferable to the current strategy of a lot of Hill Republicans, which appears to rely heavily on leaking negative comments about colleagues they dislike.