The world looked different four months ago for conservatives. They were fired up. The government was shut down over demands to defund, then delay, Obamacare, and the debt-ceiling increase vote was around the corner. "We're really, very energized today. We're very strong," Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told Fox's Sean Hannity then. "This is about the happiest I've seen members in a long time because we've seen we're starting to win this dialogue on a national level."
But now with another major deadline ahead—the debt ceiling—Bachmann and other Republicans sound markedly different. "What I've heard from other members," Bachmann says, "is that this is not going to be the hill that they're going to die on."
"You have to know when to hold them and you have to know when to fold them," Bachmann, who isn't advocating for a clean debt-ceiling bill, continued. "You just need to be wise to know when to have political fights. It isn't that our allegiance to principles have changed, it hasn't at all. You just need to know when your opportunities are and when to exercise your leverage."
With House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, repeatedly vowing the country will not default on its debt, and leadership looking for sweeteners to a debt-ceiling increase, some conservatives are actually saying a clean bill should come to the floor now. That's how they expect this whole episode to play out anyway, they reason. They'll vote against it, but save the drama.
"What's the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and expecting different results. That applies in this case," says Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky. "You can expect the same results if you have the same participants."
It's an "obvious" realization, he adds.
Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho has said the House should just take up a clean debt-ceiling bill. "Give the Democrats their vote. We don't have to vote for it." Likewise, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan acknowledged where things are headed: "I wish they would do something substantive, but they're not going to, so let's just avoid the theater and get on with it."
Indeed, "a sense of realism among the conference" has taken hold, Bachmann says. Let the Democrats take a tough vote first or attach something that would do some good, she reasons.
But what about the Hastert Rule, which informally forbids any bill being put on the floor without the support of the majority of the majority? House Republican leadership has already broken it six times from 2011 to 2013, and it looks like they may again. "Mother Teresa is a saint now, but if the Congress wanted to make her a saint and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn't get 218 Republican votes," Boehner said Thursday.
While Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana doesn't want a clean bill first, he says "there is some merit" to conservative members saying a clean bill should just move forward now. "We're at a point now where we've got about as much discretionary spending as we can get out of this administration," he says. He estimates that as many as 40 Republicans will vote against a debt-ceiling increase no matter what's attached to it.
Conservatives push back on the idea that this new sense of realism is an attitude change. Rather, it's a response to changed circumstances. Ahead of the government shutdown, Obamacare was about to be implemented. They felt this was their last shot to make a grand stand to prevent it from being rolled out. "Common sense [told] you that this president has got to consider delaying or at least reviewing, reconsidering or altering" Obamacare, Fleming says. "We were willing to go to the mat for that reason."
The shutdown and how it played out disabused them of that idea. But confidence in their leadership also plays a major role. Even before House Republicans huddled at their annual retreat to hash out a debt-ceiling strategy, leadership was signaling a default wouldn't happen.
"What you're picking up from a lot of conservatives on the Hill, and this extends beyond the Hill, is they recognize their leadership in Congress isn't willing to fight," Dan Holler of Heritage Action says. "Their members, their constituents, no one wants to see a fake fight. No one wants to see them going through the motions."
So while Republicans search for something they can attach to a debt-limit increase, some conservatives are resigning themselves to the inevitable conclusion. And the only way to change a conclusion that looks inevitable is to switch up the cast of characters. There's always November. "We need to change the Senate," Massie says.
Sarah Mimms contributed to this article.