The idea was first pushed by one guy. It was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who said two weeks ago that he and his party should shut down the entire federal government unless Democrats agree to block all funding of the Affordable Care Act, even if that denies health care coverage to millions of American families.
Then Rubio picked up some friends. The number of Republican senators endorsing this tactic grew, just over the course of two weeks, to 17 -- roughly a third of the Senate GOP caucus -- including members of the Republican leadership. Before long, Club for Growth, Heritage Action, and the Senate Conservatives Fund were all on board, too.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the shutdown: all of a sudden, a fair number of Republicans, including Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), started to realize their party's idea was blisteringly stupid.
"I think it's the dumbest idea I've ever heard of," Burr said. "Listen, as long as Barack Obama is president, the Affordable Care Act is going to be law."
The North Carolina senator pointed out that he was around when Republicans were held accountable for shutting down the government in 1995.
"I think some of these guys need to understand that if you shut down the federal government, you better have a specific reason to do it that's achievable," he said. "Defunding the Affordable Care Act is not achievable through shutting down the federal government. At some point you're going to open the federal government back up, and Barack Obama's going to be president, and he won't have signed this illusion of the Affordable Care Act."
As it happens, Burr's not alone. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) opposes his party's plan, as does Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Over in the House, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a deputy majority whip and close ally to Speaker Boehner, told Fox News, "Seems to me there's appropriate ways to deal with the law, but shutting down the government to get your way over an unrelated piece of legislation is political equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum. It's just not helpful. And it is the sort of thing that creates a backlash and could cost the Republicans the majority in the House."
As these remarks ricocheted around Capitol Hill, a funny thing happened in the Senate.
On Wednesday, the number of Republican senators on record with the government-shutdown threat was 17. Yesterday, while the right tried to find new signatories, the number of backers actually dropped to 12 -- Sens. Ayotte, Boozman, Cornyn, Kirk, and Wicker all pulled their support without explanation.
It's like watching a balloon deflate, quietly and slowly.
A brewing Republican versus Republican fight over whether to use a government funding measure to choke off Obamacare is splitting the party ahead of this fall's budget battles.
A growing number of Republicans are rejecting calls from leading conservatives, including Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, to defund the president's health care law in the resolution to keep the government running past Sept. 30. The rift exposes an emerging divide over how the GOP can best achieve its No. 1 goal -- to repeal Obamacare -- while highlighting the spreading fears that Republicans would lose a public relations war if the dispute leads to a government shutdown in the fall.
The divisions matter for a couple of reasons. First, unlike many recent fights in which GOP lawmakers march in lock-step, if the party isn't unified behind their own government-shutdown strategy, it's simply not going to happen. For Republicans, it's been difficult enough to sustain party unity on routine, everyday issues -- to pull off this kind of hostage/extortion strategy when the GOP is already splintering is impossible.
Second, if this plan implodes, and I suspect it will, it's going to make Sens. Rubio, Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) -- the ringleaders of the gambit -- look awfully foolish. They pushed a ridiculous idea, got the base all worked up, received assistance from prominent right-wing activist groups, and even had Rush Limbaugh rallying support for the cause.
If, after all of this, the scheme falls apart, and even gets mocked by their own allies, it will reinforce the impression that these far-right senators are inept show-horses who aren't serious about governing and can't even execute their own bad ideas.