WASHINGTON -- If Americans aren't sure whether Congress can head off a shutdown of the government in the next three days, they're not alone. The Republican-led House of Representatives didn't know whether it was possible either, as of Friday evening.
The Senate has passed a bill that keeps federal employees on the job until Nov. 15 -- but strips the House GOP's attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act. It's now the lower chamber's turn to deal with the legislation.
That has presented House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) with one of the toughest quandaries of his reign since the showdown over the country's debt in 2011.
A large portion of his conference remains committed to dismantling President Barack Obama's signature health care law, but on Friday members were having a hard time agreeing on exactly which pill they could use to poison the law that would also stand a chance of getting swallowed by the Senate.
Part of the problem is that many of the tea party-aligned members see a government shutdown as a better choice than letting Obamacare take root.
"I don't want to shut the government down, but I'd prefer to stop this law," said Richard Hudson (R-N.C.).
"If there is a price to be paid for this, we will recover from a government shutdown, whether it's a day, a week or two weeks ... something will get resolved, we'll recover from that as a country," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). "It's a temporary inconvenience for a lot of people. But if Obamacare is ever implemented, we will never recover from that as a nation. We can never be a free people again."
On the other hand, many GOP lawmakers see throwing a monkey wrench into the gears of government as political suicide.
"A lot of Americans are going to get hurt in a situation like that. You put people out of work. You inconvenience millions -- tens of millions -- of other Americans. You raise doubt about your ability to function," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), deputy whip of the House.
"I don't think that a government shutdown is ever the right answer. Politically, I think anybody who thinks it's not high-risk is just not playing with a full deck," Cole added. "It's extraordinarily high-risk, and for not much gain."
Cole said tea party members in the Senate, such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), had their chance to defund Obamacare with the original bill the House sent over. But now they'll have to settle for less.
"We gave our guys in the Senate an opportunity. We gave them what they asked for, or at least some of them asked for, in the defunding measure, and it looks like they weren't able to get that done," he said. "So now maybe we look at something else that's much more difficult for Democrats to turn down."
Cole and nearly all of the House GOP conference do want to send something back to the Senate that whacks Obamacare, and they were busy rifling through their medicine cabinet Friday, hoping to find just the right dose that would force a few Democrats in the Senate to go along. Among the ideas were ending a tax on medical devices, barring the federal government from contributing to congressional health insurance plans, and delaying the law or parts of it for a year.
The choice is especially fraught. If the House passes a measure that pleases the tea party, Democrats will not go along. If the House passes a token swipe at Obamacare, Cruz and company will not go along.
Democrats and the president have declared they will not let funding for the government -- or the approaching need to raise the country's borrowing limit -- be held hostage to anything. It would be tough to pry even red-state Democrats out of that lockstep.
"To be absolutely clear, we are going to accept nothing that relates to Obamacare," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reaffirmed in a press conference Friday.
But if the House GOP jab at Obamacare is too lame, it might not pass muster with Cruz and Lee, who have staked out positions demanding the defunding of the health care law.
"I have said for a long time that I do not intend to vote for any continuing resolution that funds Obamacare," Cruz told reporters after the Senate passed its bill.
If any single senator objects to something in a bill, he or she can tie it up for days, as Cruz and Lee did with the measure passed Friday. The only way for a measure to pass before the clock runs out just after midnight on Monday is for senators to unanimously agree to expedite the process.
Boehner does have one option that would guarantee the government keeps humming, but carries potentially severe consequences for him personally: simply putting the Senate's bill on the floor. If just 17 Republicans decide not to roll the dice on shutting down the government, the bill would pass with unanimous Democratic support. The drama would be over for the country -- for at least the next six weeks -- but not for Boehner.
"I think it would be devastating to the speaker's support in the conference," said Hudson, the North Carolina congressman.
That leaves Boehner trying to thread the legislative needle.
House Republicans were expected to meet on Saturday to map out a plan.
"I've talked to the speaker and the majority leader, and they're on different paths of trying to talk to members and see where they are," Hudson said. "We haven't coalesced around the conference yet. Hopefully we can get together and do that."