There are currently 433 members of the House of Representatives. Thus, 217 constitutes a simple majority. There are 200 Democrats, which means that it would only take 17 Republicans to switch in order for the current stalemate to end. So what's the problem?
Turns out there is something called the Hastert Rule, named after former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who took over after Newt Gingrich stepped down in 1998. In 2004, Hastert announced that he would not allow votes on bills unless the majority of the Republican majority supported the measure.
So, unless the majority of Republicans -- which would be 117 members-- support a bill, the Speaker will not allow a vote by the full House, even if there are enough dissident Republicans to combine with Democrats to pass the measure. In this case, it didn't even take a majority of Republicans to get
Speaker Boehner to pledge anew to follow the Hastert Rule. A letter signed by 80 of
the most conservative Republican House members -- all of them in ultra-safe seats that taken together represent only about 18 percent of the American people -- precipitated the current crisis.
One way out of the mess is a discharge petition, which any House member can sign. If a majority signs it, then the vote must be taken. That means going against your party leadership, usually a very bad thing. Right now, it is the only way forward, but we could be a while getting there. And this is just the beginning. The debt ceiling must be raised in a couple of weeks, and conservatives in the House have vowed to go through this whole "let's get rid of Obamacare" thing again. Only this time, it would be the entire U.S. economy being held hostage.
The irony is that while some of the government is shut down, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is open for business and Americans are overwhelming the phone lines and computer networks trying to get signed up. I think this is what the Republicans are really worried about: once people get to understand what they gain from the ACA, they aren't going to want to give it up. If you are a moderate Republican forced into a suicide pact by a small group of conservatives, then the millions of Americans who are in essence voting for ACA can only be seen as a warning sign that maybe it's time to get off the Titanic.