Thursday’s New York Times revealed the limits of Congressional Republicans’ capacity for legislative organization. So far, House Republicans have passed 2 major bills and lost 2 major bills: The Health Care Reform repeal that predictably went nowhere in the Senate was passed on January 19th, and a bill eliminating public financing of Presidential campaigns was passed on January 26th; then last Tuesday, February 8th, the Republicans lost a vote to temporarily extend expiring provisions of the massive and controversial USA PATRIOT Act without a floor debate by failing to win a supermajority, and last Wednesday, the 9th, a bill to demand repayment of just over $179 million that House Republicans deemed the US Government overpaid to the United Nations in 2009 also failed to win a supermajority. So, to date the House of Representatives of the 112th Congress has ended Federal matching funds for Presidential elections and effectively called for greater scrutiny of the PATRIOT Act. The latter attempt at a quick renewal failed by a margin of 6 votes, with 26 mostly-Conservative Republicans defecting.
Though the 112th Congress just met, this is not a portentious start considering all the measures the House Republican leadership proposed in their 2010 “Pledge to America.” The Federal budget is where this might really come to a head. Reflecting its usual penchant for the conceptual scoop, the Times article focused on what its author saw as the profound increase in the opposition’s difficulties: “The fraying of party unity, if not of a scale or intensity that imperils Mr. Boehner’s ability to advance the main elements of his agenda, nonetheless stood in sharp contrast to the record of Republicans in remaining remarkably united against President Obama and the Democrats over the past two years.” It’s early yet, and Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Republican Conference Chair Jeb Hensarling (who was deeply-involved in the House Republicans’ 2010 midterm campaign strategy) and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Ryan may yet succeed in disciplining this majority. The article also mentioned that the House GOP leadership tried to expedite some bills for passage even though it required a supermajority because they believed those votes would be non-controversial. For now, the Speaker has been letting a thousand flowers bloom among the ranks; these upsets may compel him to change his managerial style.
But regarding the Federal budget vote, right now, there’s no stopping the Conservatives. On Friday the House leadership relented to Conservatives who objected to a Republican budget that prorated the budget cuts to the 5 1/2 months of the current fiscal year that will have lapsed by early March, as well as allowed cuts to the Pentagon budget to make up some of the difference. Among cuts outlined in the Washington Post report are over $1 billion cut from certain items intended to implement the President’s Health Care Reform, about 30% of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, and yes, the complete elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
There is a real risk that, if left to their own devices the House Conservatives could really screw themselves over with their insistence on $100 billion in domestic discretionary spending cuts, now. True, the “Pledge to America” promised budget cuts of that size to the annual Federal budget. The fiscal year started on October 1st, and usually Congress would pass a budget that would last through next September 30th…What actually transpired last year, however, was that the Republicans during the lame-duck session approved a budget for the rest of this fiscal year that would keep spending at current levels, which was what the President’s preference. Then Tea Party activists started calling the Republicans hypocrites for supporting current Federal spending levels, and the Republicans reneged, blocking passage of the budget in the Senate! Congressional Republicans agreed to a continuing resolution for funding the Federal Government only through March. So, some time before March 4th, a majority of Representatives, 60 Senators and President Obama have to agree on a budget to fund the Federal Government through September 30th. To properly pro-rate the budget cuts the Republicans were proposing, the House Republican leadership called for about $50 billion in budget cuts, and even subtracted the President’s roughly-$16 billion in Defense Department cuts into that, thus bringing the amount they were cutting from Federal programs for this year to under $40 billion. Then the Tea Partiers in the House (and the larger conservative Republican Study Committee) revolted and refused to pass that budget. They are calling for $100 billion in Federal budget cuts now. They’re upholding the number on paper against the scale of budget cuts the number is actually intended to mean in the House Republican leaders’ “Pledge.” So now House Speaker John Boehner is confronted with an ugly choice: Either try to pass a budget with most of the Democrats and try to weather a challenge by conservatives, or give in to Republican demands for a budget that faces an uphill battle in the Senate, let-alone on President Obama’s desk, and of being stuck with either a Democratic-passed budget (in the context of a huge Republican House majority) or a government shutdown. There is no reason to expect a government shutdown today to go down differently than it did in spring 1995: The President has the means to speak out on behalf of (hypothetically-suspended) Federal programs and the House Republicans trying to force budget cuts have no real medium or message to justify the government shutdown. House Republicans would probably be forced to relent, their reputation damaged both with their base and independents; Democrats would be energized by the threatening spectacle.
John Boehner commands 242 Republican seats in the 435-seat House of Representatives. He won this majority in a historic 63-seat swing to the Republicans, having produced his “Pledge to America” as a promise to set Federal budgetary and regulatory policy from the right. What he wants (and what House Speakers can almost always count on) is for near-all of his fellow-partisans to vote with him, whatever the Democrats decide to do about it. If he can’t manage that, it’s an embarrassment. The Republican Party, to be frank, is the party of common-cause posturing–until the Tea Party revolt it was the party of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Never insult a fellow Republican.” It is more of a problem for them if they can’t pull together. We Democrats are a permanent coalition of contentious but not lost causes; we’re practically expected to quarrel amongst ourselves. If Speaker Boehner turns to the Democrats to pass a budget, it inevitably makes him look weak–to the President with whom he must contend over legislation, and definitely to the House Republican Caucus who made him Speaker.
So far, the party leadership can’t explain to the relative political neophytes of the freshman class why not all their budget cuts have to be passed this year, or why they needn’t be found in popular programs. That’s what we’re looking at. There is no master plan behind this, and it wasn’t to Republicans’ advantage to delay setting a budget like this. The Liberal Ironist thinks John Boehner has been underestimated up to now, but no amount of cleverness will overcome a legion of righteous activists intoxicated by recent (and unrepresentative) victories.
Today the President will introduce substantial program cuts in his own budget; this will give us maximum and minimum parameters for the scope of the Federal Government. Once this document is out, the ball will be back in the House Republicans’ court, if they can do anything with it.