Divided GOP absorbs shutdown deal

The GOP has little to show for a 16-day government shutdown except dismal headlines and sinking approval ratings. And to top it all off, the party remains as divided as ever.

“We fought the good fight,” House Speaker John Boehner, the nation’s top elected Republican, said Wednesday. “We just didn’t win.”

Eleven months removed from an election that saw President Barack Obama win a second term and Democrats perform more strongly than expected in congressional elections, Republicans have made little progress toward rehabilitating the party’s reputation. The GOP’s internal dividing lines remain as stark as ever and the party – at least on Capitol Hill – seems paralyzed when it comes to the business of governing.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was accused by his conservative primary challenger of "selling out conservatives" for striking an eleventh-hour agreement to reopen the federal government and avert default on the national debt.

And as McConnell appeared on the Senate floor Wednesday to hail the bipartisan agreement, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz upstaged the Republican leader by holding a simultaneous press conference in which he castigated several Republicans.

“I would point out that had Senate Republicans united, and supported House Republicans, the outcome of this, I believe, would have been very, very different,” he said.

Cruz and outside conservative groups helped foist upon Republicans an untenable strategy of linking government funding to the defunding of Obamacare. Fellow Republicans were openly skeptical of the strategy heading into the fall, and Senate Democrats joined with the White House in opposition.

Nonetheless, conservatives managed to pressure leaders into pursuing the strategy, though public opinion polls suggested the public was deeply resistant to linking government funding to Obamacare defunding, regardless of the program’s popularity.

Despite these brightly flashing warning signs at every turn, Republicans barreled ahead with the strategy. But Wednesday’s legislative compromise does virtually nothing to affect Obamacare. Even a proposal to repeal a tax on medical devices – which enjoys wide bipartisan support – was left out of the eventual deal struck by McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The collateral damage from the ordeal is clear: A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found that more Americans blamed Republicans in Congress for the government shutdown and debt standoff than the Obama administration, a figure that has only risen over the past month. Democrats now hold an advantage on the generic question of which party voters would rather see in control of Congress – an ominous sign for the GOP heading into next fall’s midterm elections.

And approval for the manner in which congressional Republicans are handling their job stands at 20 percent, according to Pew’s poll, while a whopping 72 members disapprove of the GOP in Congress. (Obama’s approval stands at 3 3percent in the same poll, while 31 percent approve of the way Democratic leaders are handling their jobs.)

On top of that, conservatives who helped lead the defund-Obamacare charge have now carefully backed away from their previous positions.

“Everybody understands that we’ll not be able to repeal this law until 2017, and that we have to win the Senate and win the White House,” said Michael Needham, the president of the influential conservative group Heritage Action, on Fox News. Heritage Action’s key vote alert against the House GOP’s last-ditch alternative to reopen the government on Tuesday helped seal the fate of the legislation, and forced Republican leaders to cancel a planned vote.

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And Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, lashed out at the media, whom he accused of equating the defund-Obamacare push as a repeal effort.

"Every time you write a story that says that Republicans and conservatives were unreasonable in asking for a complete repeal of Obamacare, you have actually been lying to the American people," he said at a roundtable meeting with fellow conservatives on Wednesday.

At that same meeting, conservative Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan said there’s been absolutely no talk of deposing Boehner. And there haven’t been any public indications otherwise to suggest the speaker’s job is at risk.

But the GOP emerges from the shutdown as dysfunctional and factionalized as ever, heading into another deadline on Jan. 15 by which they must again vote to fund the government.

The only difference between now and then: 2014 is an election year, and Democrats are eager to make the midterms a referendum on Republican competence.