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First thoughts: Boehner's in a lose-lose situation

Rep. John Boehner at a news conference.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Rep. John Boehner at a news conference.

Boehner's lose-lose situation: For weeks, House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team tried to avoid including any defunding of Obamacare in the budget negotiations. But they officially capitulated yesterday. And here's what it's getting them: grief and potential problems from all sides.

Not surprisingly, the move only alienates the Obama White House, which isn't going to negotiate over the president's signature domestic achievement in any way, shape, or form. What's more, the effort to defund Obamacare raises expectations for the conservative base. (What happens if the final legislation doesn't touch the health-care law at all? Do House conservatives bolt?)

And last night, we learned that it's still not enough for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), who last night said he wants House Republicans to continue to stand their ground on defunding Obamacare. "[Senate Democratic Majority Leader] Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so," Cruz said in the statement, per NBC's Kasie Hunt and Frank Thorp.

(Read more: House Republicans plan to defund Obamacare: Boehner

"At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people." So right now, Boehner finds himself in a lose-lose situation: The defund effort has alienated the White House, potentially raised unrealistic expectations among conservatives, and still isn't enough for Ted Cruz. What a mess.

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But an exit strategy for him? As it turns out, Cruz's statement angered the House leadership, which fired back: Why are you giving up the fight in the Senate? In addition, Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ariz.) tweeted, "so far Sen Rs are good at getting Facebook likes, and townhalls, not much else. Do something…" And perhaps this is Boehner's exit strategy. What he and House Republicans MIGHT be telegraphing to Cruz in their very pointed responses to him and other conservative senators is that if they can't "stand firm" against Harry Reid (read: find 41 votes to prevent Reid from stripping the language) then House Republicans aren't going to be —borrowing The Wall Street Journal's editorial page term here — the sole kamikazes on this. In other words, if Cruz and Senate Republicans can't win the defunding fight in the Senate, then it's time to move on to other matters. But that raises other questions: What are those other matters? What does success and compromise look like to Boehner and conservatives if health care is not involved? Is it keeping the sequestration levels? Getting the White House to throw in approval of the Keystone pipeline? If defunding or even a one-year delay won't be signed into law — as any sane person would expect with Democrats controlling the Senate and White House — then what is a satisfactory outcome for Republicans? That's the million-dollar question.

(Read more: Boehner seeking Democrats' help on fiscal talks)

Let the Senate take charge? So it's not clear to us that either the White House or Boehner knows how this ends. The most LIKELY scenario: If Boehner doesn't have the votes to be the negotiator here, a small group of Senate Republicans (think McCain, Graham, Corker etc.) work with the White House and Senate Dems for a compromise deal, and then Boehner throws in the towel and allows the House Democrats to provide a majority of the votes. It's how every other showdown has ended so it's the most likely ending this time. But can Boehner survive doing this again?

Comparing Boehner now to Pelosi in '07: To look at the situation Boehner is facing, it's instructive to take a time machine back to 2007, after Democrats had just taken control of Congress. At the time, there was CONSIDERABLE Democratic pressure to cut off funding for the highly unpopular Iraq war, which was perhaps the top issue that propelled Democrats to victory in '06. But Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic leaders ultimately didn't play politics with the funding. (Sure, there were symbolic gestures, but they were easily stripped out when the actual funding needed to be approved.) Yes, the Iraq war was unpopular, but Democrats weren't going to do anything impacting the soldiers on the ground, which could have produced a significant political backlash nationally. Rank-and-file Democrats in 2007 saw the bigger picture. Will rank-and-file House Republicans do the same?

Government shutdown doesn't affect health care's implementation: Here's a final thing for everyone to consider: Shutting down the government doesn't really affect the implementation of the health-care law. As a Congressional Research Service report stated back in late July, "It appears that substantial [Affordable Care Act] implementation might continue during a lapse in annual appropriations that resulted in a temporary government shutdown." The report also said the federal government will "be able to rely on sources of funding other than annual discretionary appropriations."

By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Jessica Taylor

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