Republicans grapple with stinging defeat

Republicans on Wednesday came to grips with a harsh reality as they prepared to swallow a Senate compromise to end the fiscal fight: They got nothing.

Two weeks after Republican demands to delay or defund President Obama’s healthcare law shuttered the government, Congress voted on legislation that reopened the government and raised the debt ceiling but left ObamaCare nearly unchanged.

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The only provision touching the healthcare law that was included — requiring income verification for subsidy recipients — was one that Democrats said was redundant and that House Republicans had already stripped out of their final proposal Tuesday.

“It's better to win than to lose. We lost,” Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told reporters Wednesday when asked what the party had learned over the past month.

The end to the fiscal crisis could be temporary: The agreement negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) funds the government only through Jan. 15 and raises the debt ceiling through Feb. 7.

But Republicans will head into the next round of budget battles having borne the brunt of the blame for the shutdown and near-default, with polls showing the party’s approval rating at historic lows.

Obama has taken a public hit as well, but after holding the line through a two-week shutdown, he has given Republicans little reason to hope he will give in to their demands over the next several months.

Conservatives said Wednesday they had no confidence that a budget conference committee would produce a favorable result by its December deadline. They indicated that winning a Senate Republican majority in 2014 would be their only way of achieving their goals to cut spending, reform entitlements and roll back ObamaCare.

“I’m going to commit candor here. I think we have less leverage on the next [spending bill] and the next debt limit than we right now,” freshman Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said at a Wednesday press event held by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

While House leaders pleaded with a divided party to unify, centrist Republicans emerged from a final conference meeting in the Capitol basement enraged at conservatives who, they say, led the GOP down a predictable path to defeat.

“These people are empowering [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said. “That’s what’s happening here today. The 20 that never want to vote with us, they haven’t figured out yet that turns the whole floor over to Pelosi.”

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said Republicans needed to publicly condemn Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the first-term Tea Party favorite who led the campaign to demand that funding for ObamaCare be withheld from a stopgap spending bill.

“He’s the guy who forced this. He’s the guy who caused this defeat,” King told reporters. “He’s the guy who’s a fraud who never had a strategy to begin with, and if we let him do it again, it’s our fault.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a vocal critic of the party’s strategy, called the shutdown one of the most “shameful chapters” of his time in the Senate.

"I hope it is another 15 years at least before we have to go through this exercise again," McCain told reporters. "We're in a hole, we have to dig out and come up with a positive agenda."

Conservatives were unbowed, however.

Cruz denounced the deal as a concoction of “the Washington establishment” and voiced no regrets about his strategy.

In the House, Republican hardliners said the shutdown was worth the fight, win or lose. They praised Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for waging it on their behalf, and they said he had strengthened his once-tenuous position in the conference.

“Any time you stand up for the American people, it’s worth it,” Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) said.

Massie said the outcome was the same as it would have been if Republicans had given in prior to the government shutting down.

“I don’t see any credence to the argument that we would have been better off without the fight,” he said.

But he conceded the party was no better off, either.

“Goose egg. We got nothing,” Massie said.

Yet other Republicans said the doomed fight over ObamaCare obscured developments that the party could otherwise have claimed as victories. The Senate deal maintained sequestration spending levels into 2014, for example, but Republicans earned no credit for the achievement because Democrats had agreed to that concession weeks ago.

And there was widespread consternation among rank-and-file Republicans that the shutdown and the looming default overshadowed news coverage of the problematic rollout of the healthcare law’s insurance exchanges.

By late Wednesday afternoon, some Republicans were exhausted; some were embarrassed; and some were simply grouchy as they learned the terms of a final agreement that contained little for them to like.

They filed into a familiar meeting room in the basement of the Capitol, gave Boehner a standing ovation and filed out 15 minutes later, unsatisfied with the outcome and yet undeterred in a battle they said they wouldn’t give up.

“We fought the good fight,” Boehner told a Cincinnati radio host before the meeting. “We just didn’t win.”

— Erik Wasson, Bernie Becker, Peter Schroeder and Rebecca Shabad contributed.

— This story was posted at 6 a.m. and updated at 9:26 a.m.

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