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GOP takes biggest hits from Washington standoff

Public opinion has soured on the Republican Party after the 16-day government shutdown and the GOP remains as divided as ever with little to show for its efforts to gain concessions on Obamacare and government spending.

The standoff has nicked every Washington politician to some extent but it’s Republican leaders and the Tea Party who took the biggest hits. Here’s how this fiscal fight has affected key players moving forward:

House Speaker John Boehner

The shutdown showed why Boehner has the toughest job in politics – he’s forced to balance the demands of his Tea Party colleagues against the reality of a Democratic Senate and an Obama administration.

The speaker said the GOP had “fought the good fight,” but ended up relenting without winning any major concession involving Obamacare — the genesis of the shutdown fight. 

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Boehner emerges from the ordeal mostly as he went in: his leadership hobbled and his credibility tarnished in the eyes of congressional Democrats and Obama. He refused to seek Democratic support for legislation to avoid or end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling, instead choosing conservative proposals that prolonged the stalemate. While House conservatives show no signs of overthrowing their beleaguered speaker, Boehner's ability to cut a deal and deliver Republican votes will be questioned for however long he hangs onto his gavel.

Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz and the Tea Party

The good news for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is that he emerged from the shutdown fight as the current informal favorite of the Tea Party movement. The bad news is that his overall public opinion ratings declined among almost every other group. 

Cruz endeared himself to the Tea Party in part due to his 21-hour speech on the Senate floor railing against Obamacare. But the freshman senator's efforts also earned him the enmity of follow Republicans. At best, some question his tactics. At worst, others label him a fraud (See Rep. Peter King).

President Barack Obama

Obama publicly held to his stance against negotiating over the debt ceiling extension or shutdown. While it’s not quite the “clean” legislation he was insisting on, the final product hews closely to the president's demands.

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The damage to Obama has been minimal, too; the NBC News/WSJ poll last week found that 47 percent of Americans approved of his performance (48 percent disapproved), a slight uptick since summertime. The crisis also brought a silver lining for Obama: the fury toward the shutdown drowned out serious problems with the opening of Obamacare exchanges on Oct. 1.

However, this deal is temporary for Obama; the agreement approved by Congress sets up another deadline in February, which could become another showdown. Obama was also forced to cancel a trip to Asia because of the impasse, giving Russia and China the opportunity to dominate the spotlight in trade talks.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

The tough Democratic leader held firm against GOP attempts to draw blood throughout the shutdown. He was an author of the bill to end the impasse, but earlier in the shutdown derided House salvos as “pointless” and “futile” attempts by “Tea Party anarchists” and “extortionists.” 

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In the role of bad cop to Obama’s good one, he also rejected piecemeal measures from the House to reopen the most popular parts of the federal government. That strategy prolonged the closure of national parks and other services, but it also helped pressure Republicans into accepting a nearly-“clean” agreement to re-open the government.

"I never saw anything like what Harry Reid did,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gushed during an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell Wednesday. “To watch him was to watch a master at work."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell

If Boehner’s actions throughout the shutdown were aimed at shielding himself from political risk, McConnell's made him more of a political target.

Democrats had ridiculed McConnell’s absence in the weeks leading up to the shutdown, accusing him of tending more to his re-election concerns than the business of governing. McConnell is up for re-election next fall, and faces a competitive conservative primary challenger. On top of that, Democrats recruited a relatively tough challenger for the general election. 

It was against that backdrop that McConnell took some level of personal risk to help drive an agreement with Reid over the finish line. Already being attacked by his GOP challenger back home, McConnell will soon find out whether his decision will come back to haunt his re-election campaign.

Congress

Just when it seemed as though things couldn't get worse for Congress, they did.

The NBC News/WSJ poll showed that a record six-in-10 Americans would vote out every member of Congress if given the choice. And a Pew Research Center poll showed a record-high 38 percent of Americans said they would like to see their own representative in Congress defeated in the next election.

An overwhelming percentage of members are in safe districts with little risk of being booted, but the numbers reflect rising public distaste with Congress that could translate to the ballot box.

Potential 2016 presidential candidates

If the consequences of the 2011 debt ceiling standoff rippled through the 2012 election, then this shutdown is almost certain to reverberate through the 2016 presidential election. 

Among Republicans, three possible presidential candidates — led by Cruz and joined by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — were early signatories to the strategy linking continued government funding to defunding Obamacare, a central factor contributing to the shutdown.

The good news for the GOP is that Republicans outside of Washington like Chris Christie in New Jersey, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana or Scott Walker in Wisconsin could wage presidential campaigns that both capitalize on frustration in Washington and distinguish themselves from their colleagues on Capitol Hill. 

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton hasn't had any official role in the shutdown, allowing her to escape responsibility or blame for the fiscal morass. Vice President Joe Biden didn't fare much better. Though he's a member of the Obama administration, Biden was largely sidelined over the past month by Democrats, who feared the vice president might reprise his role of last-minute deal-maker in past crises and give away too many concessions to Republicans.

Women in the Senate

The seeds of the deal to end the shutdown were sewn by a group of moderate GOP senators led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine., who worked alongside Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

The trio assembled a group of 12 centrists, dominated by fellow women senators, to help craft a deal once talks in the House finally broke down. Their talks formed the framework of the eventual agreement to end the shutdown and reopen the government.

Sen. John McCCain, R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor that the deal “was provided primarily by women in the Senate.” And Collins said the bipartisan nature of the group was more significant than its female leadership. “We put together a bipartisan group, I think it’s significant it’s led by women, but even more significant is the fact that it’s six Republicans, six Democrats and we’ve come to an agreement.”

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