It’s coming. What the Tea Partiers in the Republican Caucus in the House had made likely, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) has now made…well, really hard to avoid. I previously reported on the Tea Partiers’ revolt over the attempt by House Republican leaders to moderate their calls for spending cuts to work-out a budget deal with the President; while the House Republican leadership had called for about $40 billion in cuts to non-Defense discretionary spending on Wednesday of last week, they are now proposing at least $61 billion in cuts to such spending.
The New York Times reported that such deep spending cuts haven’t merely raised real concerns about the stability of our economic recovery (undermining Federal stimulus, requiring layoffs from Federal jobs, and canceling or curtailing Federal contracts to private companies), but some Republican Representatives have even admitted such cuts may be politically self-defeating. Ultimately, though, it isn’t the House leadership’s seats that will be on the line, but the Republican freshmen–a great many of whom are the Tea Party activists insisting on the budget cuts. So, in order to retain their positions in a restive and skeptical Republican Caucus, House leaders have to consent to letting freshmen members endanger their own seats by pushing for cuts to programs from which their constituents in sometimes-marginal districts benefit. The debate in the House over these spending cuts opened last Tuesday, as House Speaker John Boehner took the step–not seen from either party’s leadership since Newt Gingrich’s “Class of 1994” Republicans took over 16 years ago–of allowing Representatives from both parties to commend budget cuts–or increases. Of course, with 242 members and a dominant Conservative wing, the Republicans have carried most of the budget amendments (as you can see from this nifty New York Times chart), though in some instances Federal programs have been restored by a majority vote. One interesting bit of news is the cancellation, by a vote of 233-198, of the expensive 2nd engine for the F-35 Joint-Strike Fighter jet, a pork spending item that both Presidents W. Bush and Obama had tried to defund. Maintaining this funding had been an interest for Speaker Boehner, whose west Ohio Congressional District receives many jobs from the construction of this engine. The elimination of this second engine alone is projected to save $3 billion (!) over coming years.
Senate Appropriations Chair Inouye has done his corresponding part to close the bargaining space for a budget agreement, scheduling the Senate vote on its version of the budget for the first week of March. The continuing resolution temporarily funding the Federal Government while its budget is passed runs out on March 4th. Speaker Boehner, still acting in response to prodding by the upstart Conservatives in his freshman class, has said it’s make-or-break time–House Republicans won’t support another continuing resolution to take more time to resolve his party’s budget differences with the Democrats unless that temporary suspension contains substantial spending cuts.
While the intervening 2+ weeks could otherwise be spent negotiating a reconciled budget, the back-loading of the Senate’s budget vote makes a shutdown of an unfunded Federal Government very difficult to avoid. True, the depth of the program cuts proposed by House Republicans right now is intolerable for Congressional Democrats and President Obama, but if Senator Inouye had allowed an earlier vote this would still have given Senate Democrats (and the President) time to pressure the House–and House leadership political cover to show their Conservative rank-and-file that they don’t really have the means to prevail if President Obama takes his message about the value of targeted programs to the public. If such a strategy seems implausible after the last election, bear in mind that President Clinton won such a confrontation just over 15 years ago, when the Federal Government shut down after he and Congressional Republicans failed to pass a budget–just over 1 year after his party lost control of Congress in a wave election.
For now, the House soldiers on with its open invite to propose budget cuts; a vote is expected either in the very wee hours of this morning or some time Friday–though it would not be unheard-of for such a contested and sensitive vote for it to drag on into the weekend. In the meantime, House Republicans debate the priorities of their base: The Washington Post reports that the House is either debating or has likely passed 1 or 2 amendments banning funds from implementing the President’s 2010 Health Care Reform, and the New York Times reports that House Republicans are currently debating eliminating all Title X funding for Planned Parenthood, claiming that family planning assistance for the poor makes abortions more-affordable. The anti-Health Care Reform amendments, of course, are a tactical measure aimed at a central 2010 Republican campaign commitment; the proposal to eliminate $317 million in family planning assistance, the Liberal Ironist suspects, is part of a strained Republican effort to appease both the Christian Right and Libertarian factions of the Republican Party, which likely share only 1 sentiment about abortion–that the Federal Government shouldn’t spend money to fund or even facilitate it in any way.
To President Obama and Congressional Democrats, however, those amendments epitomize a budget-cutting process aimed at society’s most-vulnerable. Were it not for all the rest, those amendments alone would have to be removed for the Senate–let-alone the President–to pass the budget. Of course, at this rate the Senate won’t have time to discuss removing the amendments anyway…