The dispute in Washington is still all about Obamacare. For Tea Party backers the president's health reform defines the notion of big government. If they can win the battle to delay its introduction or delay key taxes that underpin its funding, Tea Party Republicans will no longer have to see Obama's re-election last year as a failure – it becomes merely a setback.
Unfortunately for them, the public mood has turned against using the federal budget and debt ceiling as a tool to defeat Obamacare. More than that, some Republicans, albeit only a handful, have switched their allegiance, and can see the benefits to their constituents of a broader and cheaper (at least to the consumer) healthcare system.
Now the White House is pushing back hard against Republican negotiators. Obama's team has refused to delay any element of the scheme, arguing that it was a key election manifesto pledge and funding was largely agreed in Congress earlier this year.
As the government shutdown enters its third week, Democrats would appear to have the whip hand. Strengthening their grip on negotiations is the warning from leaders in Europe and Asia that the dispute is doing immeasurable damage to business confidence and could soon hurt global trade.
And yet, Republican policymakers in the lower house and Senate, fearful of deselection by hardline factions in many key constituencies, are condemned to plough on. They have some bargaining power should talks drag on because the next round of automatic cuts, even deeper than January's sequester, go into force on the first day of 2014. That said, the country may already be bust by then.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk