Sen. Ted Cruz Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.)  (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

You only need to look at two takes on the next step in the shutdown fiasco to understand the divide that cuts through Congress and the right.

On the one hand there is Heritage Action, which goaded Republicans into the shutdown. Back in January — before it was House Speaker John Boehner’s idea — the right-wing money machine warned Republicans they must use the debt limit to extract concessions from the White House. On Wednesday morning, like Ahab and his whale, Heritage Action once again went after Obamacare defunding, and now decreed that the debt ceiling should be raised. Period. That may come as a shock to both Democrats and Republicans who know that is one of the most unpopular votes for an incumbent. But worse, the group is still convinced the shutdown is working and the continuing resolution is the wedge Republicans must use to defund Obamacare. As one GOP Senate staffer for a conservative critical of the shutdown plan put it, Heritage Action seems bent on taking Republicans “off a cliff.”

The shutdown strategy appears, however, to be on its last legs as a stream of respected conservative voices castigates its architects and bemoans the missed opportunity. The Post reports:

Some Republicans are aiming harsh recriminations toward those who had vigorously advocated linking the funding needed to keep the government operating to the drive to stop the health-care law. Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who has become the face of that strategy, is the chief target of such criticism from within GOP ranks. “I think it was very possible for us to delay the implementation of Obamacare for a year until Cruz came along and crashed and burned,” anti-tax activist Grover Norquist said. . . .


Now that [shutdown] plan is in tatters, and party and movement leaders are trying to salvage something from what is widely acknowledged to be a politically disastrous few weeks. Instead, many strategists say, the stumbling rollout of the law has been overshadowed by the shutdown and a perception that Republicans have overreached.

“There is a strong sense of a missed opportunity,” Norquist said.

Thankfully for Republicans, steadier hands finally are grabbing the wheel. Brendan Buck from the speaker’s office released a statement yesterday afternoon trying to make the best of the White House invitation to congressional leaders: “Nine days into a government shutdown and a week away from breaching the debt ceiling, a meeting is only worthwhile if it is focused on finding a solution. That’s why the House Republican Conference will instead be represented by a smaller group of negotiators, including the elected leadership and certain committee chairmen.” He continued, “It is our hope that this will be a constructive meeting and that the president finally recognizes Americans expect their leaders to be able to sit down and resolve their differences.”

To that end, as I noted yesterday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), who will attend the confab, has suggested a range of issues that the parties might address, especially entitlement reform. The president, The Post editorial board advises, should “embrace” this approach.

But here Ryan must walk a fine line, given that the defund Obamacare delusional right wing is nervous he’s now focusing on something attainable. He was obliged to assure them later in the day, “We’re going to keep going after Obamacare. I’m totally committed to dismantling  this law because what we’re learning soon here is that’s it’s going to do so much damage to this country. Premiums are skyrocketing, people are losing the coverage they had, businesses are knocking people down less than 40 hours a  week, it’s just terrible.” But he also introduced a modicum of reality: “I don’t know that within the next two weeks we have a viable strategy for actually repealing Obamacare, every piece of it.”

So there you have it. The shutdown squad veers from one strategy to another, with an eye for the most extreme and hence most unachievable ends. Ryan and others see an opportunity to advance the fiscal goals of conservatives, but they know all too well that Obamacare isn’t being “defunded” (in part because it’s not a matter of discretionary funding) so long as the GOP doesn’t hold the Senate or the White House. Holding the balance between these competing factions in Congress are mainstream Republicans who have been cowed by the far right into taking untenable positions. It’s time to join the side they are on and govern as responsible conservatives. If not, the party and perhaps the country is going over that cliff.