They're crazy. They're kamikazes. They're making it up as they go along. In the days since the partial closure of the federal government, there has been no shortage of criticism of Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and the small band of Senate and House Republicans who pushed the effort to defund Obamacare to the brink of government shutdown and beyond.
Make your own judgment on their sanity and suicidal tendencies. But they have a plan. In coming days, as the shutdown enters its second week, this is what they hope to do.
First, they're working on the premise that the partial government closure has not been as bad as some predicted. Estimates by Senate Republicans suggest 83 percent of federal spending is continuing uninterrupted during the shutdown. The remaining 17 percent is still a lot, but the Republican rebels believe the basic continuity in government expenditures gives them room to keep fighting.
Now the rebels plan to push President Obama and Democrats hard on their refusal to negotiate the basic issues of funding the government and raising its debt limit. They believe that as days go by, Obama's my-way-or-the-highway approach won't play well with the public, particularly independents who are undecided about who to blame for the shutdown.
Then they plan to hit the president and Democrats on their refusal even to consider measures to fund specific parts of the government. The rebels have been doing that already, but now they plan to push in a very targeted way.
At the beginning of the shutdown, House Republicans proposed a bill to fund the nation's active-duty military, as well as civilian Defense Department employees and some contractors. It passed the House unanimously. Then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made an exception to his vow not to consider partial spending measures, and the "Pay Our Military Act" passed unanimously in the Senate, too. Obama signed it into law immediately.
Democrats insist that was a one-time-only exception, that they won't approve any more targeted funding bills. One of those bills, passed by the House and now bottled up in the Senate, would restore funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But the GOP rebels look at how quickly Reid and Obama scrambled to pay the troops and ask: Why would Democrats bend their own rules in order to pay active-duty military and then refuse to do the same for the nation's veterans? They plan make that point a lot in coming days.
Obama and Reid aren't really the targets. The GOP rebels want to focus on red-state Democrats, particularly those up for re-election in 2014, and make the shutdown a question of support for veterans. (It's a tactic that certainly wasn't hurt by the Park Service's ham-handed attempts to close down the World War II and Vietnam War memorials on the National Mall.) Cruz's Growth and Freedom Fund PAC has created a new website, Fundourvets.com, that urges people to tell Senate Democrats that "legislation to fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs…needs their support."
The GOP rebels believe those vulnerable Democrats will eventually cave on veterans' funding. And if they do, having voted once to keep the military going, and then again to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs, what is the rationale for resisting other funding measures?
The rebels will also continue to push the national parks issue. Beyond events on the Mall, the administration has badly mishandled closures at some famous parks around the country. Did they really need to block part of a state road so tourists couldn't stop to take pictures of Mt. Rushmore? Look for the GOP rebels to keep pressing the Senate to take up a House-passed bill to fund the National Park Service. They'll also slam Reid and Obama for refusing to consider other bills to fund what they'll call "vital government priorities." Again, the targets are not so much Obama and Reid as those vulnerable Democrats.
The rebels ultimately hope to push Democrats to accept some sort of compromise that delays or in some way limits Obamacare. But if they fail -- and Democrats have remained rock-solid on Obamacare to this point -- they envision a situation in which, for as long as the shutdown goes on, they are able to fund popular government programs while leaving some key Democrat-friendly outposts shuttered. For example, while they want to fund the Pentagon, are the Republican rebels OK with the fact that most of the Environmental Protection Agency is shut down? They are. Are they worried about furloughs at the National Labor Relations Board? Not particularly.
Whatever happens in the end, the rebels know they've been able to force Democrats to take some uncomfortable stands. However the government shutdown of 2013 is resolved, they want the final result to make life difficult for those Democrats in 2014.