I love this mutually-hated-compromise stuff.
Back in mid-February I portended doom over efforts by President Obama, the House Republican leadership and Senator-Reid’s diminished Senate majority to work-out a budget deal in time to meet the March 4th deadline for the end of the contemporaneous continuing resolution; the Senate was initially so far from the $61 billion in budget cuts proposed by the House–and proposed a vote on their version of the budget for the first week of March–that I thought a government shutdown was immanent. And yet here we are, days away from either a budget deal or from the biggest self-injury the Republicans have suffered since John McCain’s 2008 Presidential candidacy.
New House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) promised steep cuts to domestic discretionary spending of $100 billion in his party’s “Pledge to America,” unveiled in September. In early-February, however, Speaker Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) reported the outline of a deal to cut Federal domestic discretionary spending by around $35 billion, adding roughly $16 billion in Defense Department budget cuts Defense Secretary Robert Gates had offered to President Obama and claiming a $51 billion victory. Within 2 days the Conservative rank-and-file in the House Republican Caucus were in open revolt, reportedly refusing to countenance budget cuts of less than $61 billion to domestic discretionary spending. ($61 billion was the rough equivalent of the $100 billion in domestic discretionary spending cuts proposed under the “Pledge to America” prorated to the 5 months and 1 week of continuing resolutions passed to sustain the 2010 budget into the current fiscal year.) In keeping with their pledge to make the work of Congress more-transparent and less-manipulable by party leaders, the Republicans took the step of permitting all members of both parties to offer amendments to either restore or cut items from the Federal budget. Democrats did claim a few victories through budget restorations and cuts, and Speaker Boehner faced an embarrassing surprise when a budget amendment by a fellow Republican terminated funding for a 2nd jet engine for the F-35 fighter jet. This 2nd engine had been a source of exasperation for both the Defense Department and the Obama Administration, which saw it as an egregious example of preferential pork spending. (The F-35’s 2nd engine was manufactured at a western Ohio factory that employs many people in Speaker Boehner’s home district.)
These developments all demonstrated the Tea Partiers’ capacity to defy the authority of their party leaders. So, did I judge incorrectly when I argued the Tea Partiers would eventually be brought into the fold?
I still don’t think so. It’s undeniably true that the Tea Party uprising has both revivified the Republican Party and pushed it to the right on economic policy; George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservative” blueprint that sought to draw-off traditional Democratic constituencies, deepen the support of the Christian Right, and maintain the support of big business through large new Federal programs and block grants, is dead. But the interesting thing about the budget revolt from the right of the House Republican Caucus is the fact that it has weakened the Conservative position on the budget in the long-run. Like I said, Paul Ryan’s previous Federal budget proposal called for about $35 billion in Federal program cuts; the current compromise–which is not a done deal yet but which has been accepted by both Republican and Democratic leaders in its scope–provides for about $33 billion in budget cuts.
How exactly did the Republicans go from the $61 billion in budget cuts they were proposing back to where their agreement started? Well, that’s simple: If Boehner, Cantor and Ryan listen to their right flank, they will face criticism from a broader public averse to the pain of the budget cuts they have proposed and fail to pass a budget anyway since the Democratic-held Senate fell 16 votes short of the supermajority it needed to pass the House Republicans’ budget; on the other hand, if House Republican leaders work-out a deal with the Democratic Senator and President Obama they won’t be able to bring along the Tea Partiers in their caucus, whom they need to attain a majority on the budget…which requires House Republicans to cobble together a majority with Democrats…which requires the House Republican leadership to move even farther from their right-wing bargaining position. If there is a government shutdown, Speaker Boehner will have a harder time blaming the President because he 1) accepted and proposed some budget cuts of his own, and 2) probably wouldn’t have to vote on a budget that would have died in a Senate for want of 60 votes.
The current continuing resolution, leaders in both parties have insisted, will be the last. It becomes progressively more-embarrassing to pass funding levels for the Federal Government for several weeks, and the scope of peripheral budget cuts that both parties can agree to in a continuing resolution have about run their course. Now, we’ll see whether the Federal Government has to shutter major services for the first time since…well, since the last year following a Republican takeover. The New York Times suggests that the Republican leadership has simply pivoted to a subject that is the real driver of our impending Federal debt crisis–Medicare and Medicaid. If that is their plan, accessibility to Senate Democrats and President Obama practically requires a relatively-friendly settlement to the 2011 budget; otherwise the President and other Democrats will probably make short work of Congressman Ryan’s radical proposals to reform entitlements.
If the Tea Partiers in the House somehow prevail in their insistence on their deeper budget cuts and thus bring the government to a shutdown, this will undermine the House Republican leadership’s deserved reputation for pragmatism while actually reducing Republican leverage to set a negotiating position on the 2011 budget. If a deal is reached, however, the (minimum) political space needed to engage a debate over the scope and sustainability of Medicare and Medicaid opens up. The irony is very telling about the wisdom of the checks and balances of our political system: The 2 parties are about as ideologically-polarized as they have ever been, but as a result the party with fewer and less-organized fanatics can pull intransigent opposition closer to their position.
Or, as I thought back in mid-march, the government could just shut down if Congress can’t build a consensus.