Boehner and Cantor met with Pelosi and Steny Hoyer today per Robert Costa, who says “[a] House Republican tells me the terms of a short-term debt-limit extension are being discussed, but nothing is finalized.” Wait a sec — I thought Boehner and especially Paul Ryan wanted to merge shutdown negotiations with debt-ceiling negotiations in order to maximize the GOP’s leverage over Obama. That’s their best bet to get a — well, not a grand bargain on deficit reduction, but a nice-first-step bargain. If they punt on the debt ceiling, even for a few weeks, then Boehner and his leadership team will be forced to extract concessions from O first on the shutdown and then again on the debt at a moment when they’re having tremendous difficulty extracting concessions even on the package of the two. And that means they might end up disappointing conservatives twice instead of once. As one GOP strategist said last week, “If you’re going to take a bullet, you want to take just one.”

Precisely for that reason, tea partiers like Erick Erickson are calling for negotiations not to be merged. Once they’re merged, ObamaCare will be quietly forgotten in the name of striking a major deal on entitlement reform and new revenue. If you want to keep ObamaCare front and center, you should in theory want to punt now on the debt limit and force Boehner to focus on shutdown negotiations. The O-Care debate is what instigated the shutdown in the first place; if Boehner and Ryan want a grand bargain on entitlements, they’re welcome to address that separately in debt-ceiling negotiations later. Says Erickson:

They do not want a stand alone fight on Obamacare. They want to conflate it with the debt ceiling so they can do a grand bargain and leave Obamacare alone.

Consider Rep. Paul Ryan’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. He wants a grand bargain and not once mentions Obamacare. Not once…

What’s more, if the debt ceiling gets pushed to just before Christmas, the GOP will collapse in that fight just like they did with Obamacare in 2009…

Regardless, the only path to victory in this shutdown is to keep our fire on Obamacare and our focus on the defunding effort. We can still undermine Obamacare, but we need to resist the attempt to merge this with the debt limit and hold the line on the continuing resolution. Otherwise we will lose on both.

Solution: A short-term debt-ceiling hike. The heads of conservative PACs also sound rosier lately about the idea of a debt-ceiling hike:

Michael Needham, CEO of the powerful group Heritage Action, said that he opposed conditioning a crucial vote to increase the government’s borrowing authority on the group’s main goal: defunding Obamacare…

“I’m sure the markets will react negatively,” he said, even if, as he suggested was possible, the Treasury could “prioritize” interest payments to foreign bondholders.

Rather than try to hold the debt ceiling vote hostage to the defunding of Obamacare, he said, the better “tactical” course for Heritage and other key foes of the administration is to continue to focus on annual spending — and on allowing the full opening of government only if Obamacare is dismantled…

Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of the influential conservative group FreedomWorks, also said in a Wednesday interview with The Huffington Post that the debt ceiling should be raised in order to keep the Obamacare fight focused on the continuing resolution.

Forget the debt ceiling, at least for now, and dig in on the shutdown in order to extract concessions on O-Care. That’s safer for the global economy, better for America, and therefore also better politically for the GOP since it banishes the specter of default. For just that reason, Democrats will have no choice but to agree to it, no matter how strategically disastrous it might be to their interests:

As things stands, the White House is saying it won’t negotiate to raise the debt ceiling, while Republicans are expressing sublime confidence that the White House ultimately will deal, as it has in the past. From my own conversations with administration officials, and from all the reporting and public statements I’ve seen to this effect, I’m fairly certain the White House isn’t going to retreat. But the fact is that there’s some ambiguity out there in light of the recent history. Unfortunately, a short-term debt-limit increase would only exacerbate this ambiguity. Given that a short-term increase would make it harder to preserve the no-negotiation posture (as explained in the previous paragraph), it would be plausible to interpret the short-term increase as an indication that Democrats do in fact want to negotiate. That’s completely at odds with what Democrats want John Boehner to believe, and (as I say) with what I think the reality is. But it’s the message Republicans will take away. If there’s a short-term increase, Boehner’s going to hold out longer into the process than if there isn’t one.

The whole point of the Democrats’ “no negotiations until you end the fiscal brinksmanship” strategy is to convince Republicans that they should never try this again. If they agree to a short-term hike while the GOP’s holding out for shutdown concessions, they’re signaling the opposite, that the fear factor in default is such that they’re bound on bend on it in the name of averting catastrophe. But what else can they do? After comparing the GOP to suicide bombers and terrorists for weeks, they’re not about to reject a clean debt-ceiling hike offered by Boehner just because it isn’t long enough. In fact, Obama himself has already hinted about being amendable to a short-term hike, which undermines Reid’s “no negotiations” stance.

So conservatives like the idea of a hike, Democrats have no choice but to agree, and Boehner … also has no choice but to agree, I guess? As noted above, a short-term hike is the opposite of what he’d prefer; he wants one merged negotiation so that he can get something, be it chained CPI or a new bipartisan commission on tax reform or whatever, to show his caucus that he “won.” As it is, if the debt limit is raised now for a few weeks, he’s stuck managing the futile demands to defund/limit ObamaCare. And what happens to his debt-ceiling leverage next month if, as most everyone expects, he ends up caving first on the shutdown? Does he dig in twice as hard on the debt limit, with absolute determination to get something meaningful there? Or, with his caucus unhappy and split, does he fold there too and see his Speakership collapse? Tell me what a “happy ending” looks like here.

Update: John McCormack zeroes in on another part of Needham’s comments this morning. If the strategy here is to defund ObamaCare by keeping the government closed, why does the GOP keep offering to pass smaller bills that would get major departments and agenices back up and running?

Passing bills in the House to fund a variety of programs–such as Head Start, NIH, veterans benefits, WIC–is “a great strategy” in Needham’s opinion. “Inevitably at some point I think the pressure on the Senate to fund veterans will cause them to do it,” he said.

But if the most vital parts of government are funded, wouldn’t that decrease the pressure to defund Obamacare?

“If we want to sit in a government shutdown for the next several weeks over at the NRLB and the EPA…I’m perfectly happy to sit in that situation until the president stops this unaffordable and unfair law,” Needham said.

Why would President Obama permanently defund his signature health care law in order to fully fund agencies like the EPA and NRLB (whose furloughed employees will certainly receive back pay when the shutdown ends)?

Follow the link for Needham’s reply.