WASHINGTON Here's how grave the House Republicans' condition has become: They're now in the care of a mortician.
In the early minutes of a marathon meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday morning, Rep. Steve Southerland, a funeral director from Florida, rose to suggest the lawmakers sing "Amazing Grace" and his colleagues joined him in a rendition of the burial hymn.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
It was an appropriate choice, for the House GOP is practicing its own form of mortuary science: It is burying both the Republican brand and America's standing in the world.
On Monday night, Washington was finally moving toward an agreement albeit a temporary solution to end the government shutdown and avoid a default on the national debt. The agreement in principle, negotiated by Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, probably would have sailed through the House. But then House Speaker John Boehner pre-empted the bipartisan agreement with a new plan of his own that had no Democratic support. It was difficult to see any reason for the proposal other than blocking progress on an agreement and it succeeded at that. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called off a meeting in which he was to have unveiled the agreement, and Democrats lined up to denounce the new tactic, which emerged just two days before the Treasury runs out of room to maneuver on the nation's bills.
Yet even that nasty piece of work didn't have enough support from Boehner's GOP caucus, because tea-party Republicans were still holding out for an assault on Obamacare. After a two-hour caucus meeting twice the usual length Boehner emerged admitting there were "a lot of opinions" but "no decisions."
Surely, he can't be surprised. If a sizable minority within his caucus is here in Washington with the main purpose of disabling federal power, why would this faction be eager to end a government shutdown or avoid a default? Some of them are "default deniers" who think the whole threat to the full faith and credit of the United States is a hoax. Perhaps some others are of the mind that if they shock the economy back into recession, President Obama's party will be blamed in next year's elections for high unemployment.
Whatever their reasons, lawmakers took turns at the open microphones for two hours in the closed-door session and they weren't singing karaoke for Boehner. When they emerged to find 150 reporters lining the hallways of the Capitol basement, they clearly had no message worth delivering.
Rep. Mo Brooks (Alabama): "I have no comment."
Rep. Trent Franks (Arizona.): "I never speak of things we talk about in conference. That's rude."
One claimed he was going to the men's room. Others clutched phones to their ears.
GOP leaders apparently had nothing to say for themselves either, because they settled on a theme of saying their last-minute monkey wrench was meant "to provide fairness to the American people under Obamacare," as Boehner put it.
"There should be fairness," Majority Leader Eric Cantor agreed.
"Individuals should be treated fairly," concurred Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Washington), the conference chairwoman, contributed her belief in "fairness for all."
Fair for all? More like a free-for-all.
NBC's Kelly O'Donnell asked Boehner whether he could guarantee that there would be no default.
"The idea of default is wrong, and we shouldn't get anywhere close to it," the speaker replied.
But Boehner had just put the country close to default by pre-empting the Senate compromise. With the country up against the debt ceiling, he had renewed the fight over Obamacare and inflamed Democrats by proposing to limit a president's flexibility to avoid defaults in the future. (Boehner later revised the proposal to recruit conservative support, but late in the day that, too, fell apart.)
Twenty minutes after Boehner's appearance, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid interrupted proceedings on the Senate floor to say that he spoke "for many of us who have been working in good faith when I say that we felt blindsided by the news from the House." He pronounced himself "very disappointed with John Boehner, who would once again try to preserve his role at the expense of the country."
Boehner and his colleagues can sing "Amazing Grace" in the Capitol basement, but if they get the blame for a shutdown and a default, the only way they'll be able to preserve their majority is with embalming fluid.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.