We Have a Budget…and *Maybe* Even a Political Center

We have a budget.  The House and Senate both quickly passed the long-scrutinized and long-imperiled 2011 Federal budget, fully-funding a fiscal year that began on October 1st.

Who won?  (Well, we all did, since we found our elected representatives were not so polarized that they couldn’t agree to fund the government, but) many Liberals feel President Obama preemptively surrendered the progressive agenda out of fear of the Conservatives’ electoral strength, and many Conservatives feel that the Republican Party has forsaken its pledge to curb Washington spending.  This doesn’t just meet the traditional test of a good compromise–everyone is unhappy–but it implies what I’ve seen argued elsewhere, that the final 2011 budget was actually fairly close to the median Congressman’s preferred range of budget cuts.

In my recap on the 11th-hour budget agreement last Saturday, I concluded that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was the principal winner because the ability to move the freshman Republicans to his initial compromise position on Federal budget cuts (in the vicinity of $38 billion) meant that he had consolidated control of the House majority his party gained in the midterm elections last November.  Again, however, recent events have given me cause to suspect I spoke too soon.

The final tally of the House vote on the fiscal year 2011 Federal budget is in, and it’s 260-167.  That’s a pretty safe passage for a hotly-contested budget, but the breakdown is interesting.  As the New York Times indicates on its Congressional legislation webpage, 179 Republicans voted for the FY 2011 budget–with 214 votes were needed to pass it (accounting for 6 absences).  81 Democrats voted for the budget; 59 Republicans voted against the budget because it supposedly didn’t entail deep-enough spending cuts, and 108 Democrats voted against the budget because…well, cutting government spending during a recession is usually economically damaging.  It helps to think of this outcome in terms of proportions: The Republicans have just over a 5:4 advantage on the Democrats in the House of Representatives, and the vote for the budget was 3:2 in favor, with Republicans 3:1 in favor of it and Democrats voting just less than 3:2 against it.

How about the 87 Republican freshmen, whom so often arise in these discussions as a likely base of Tea Party ideological rejectionism?  60 voted for the budget compromise, and 27 voted against it–a better than 2:1 margin in favor of the leadership’s compromise position.  The GOP freshmen didn’t even provide half of the 59 votes against it.  Shooting from the hip, the Liberal Ironist can think of 3 explanations for this, none of which I’m yet wedded to:

1a. The House Tea Partiers are more-pragmatic than we realized, and accept arguments about focusing on long-term spending reductions through Finance Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed radical changes to Medicare and Medicaid over a politically-risky and economically damaging fight over the Federal program cuts promised by Boehner in the “Pledge to America.”  Alternately…

1b. The House Tea Partiers are actually rather easily-led about.

2. The Tea Party “brand,” such as it has been established (and which many of the 87 Republican freshmen carry), is not a valid indicator of belief in the sentiments and policy positions reflected in the Tea Partiers’ more-radical “Contract from America” or the Republican Study Committee, which embraced the Tea Party Conservatives when they came to Washington.  This is not to say that the Tea Party isn’t a coherent movement or that it doesn’t have core principles, just that we can overlook the endorsements the big organizations and Mayor Palin made last fall, because the “real” Congressional manifestation of the Tea Party is being shaped right now, among the dissenters in these votes.

3. We’ve been so alternately mortified or fascinated by the emergence of the Tea Party as a (very partisan) grassroots movement that we’ve overlooked how Conservative the House Republican Caucus was to begin with–at least since their massive losses left them a bewildered rump party in 2006.

Actually, the Liberal Ironist does have a preferred explanation: We’ve just witnessed the digestion of the Tea Party.  I don’t mean that the Tea Party hasn’t been effective–it completed the purge of former President George W. Bush’s big government “Compassionate Conservatism” from the Republican Party, and it has clearly empowered House Finance Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, essentially Cato‘s man in Congress.  But this division of the very-large House Republican Freshman class–including brand Tea Partiers–into those who support compromise in the name of legislative victory and those who don’t trust the judgment of their own party leadership–means that in just 4 months in Washington the Tea Partiers have found themselves reproducing the camps that unambiguously rent the Republican Party when Conservatives dissented over President George W. Bush’s Prescription Drug Benefit in summer 2003.

Is the Republican Party in trouble?  No.  Is Speaker John Boehner vulnerable to a leadership challenge from the right?  I rather doubt it.  First of all, a refusal to accept Boehner’s budget deal can be a simple protest vote rather than a vote of no-confidence in the Speaker.  The most-plausible challenger to John Boehner would be the more-combative Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA)–but he voted for the budget, too.  He has also already insisted that he is not angling for the top House job, that the House Republican leadership is united.  Anyone else who challenged John Boehner for Speaker of the House would simply risk a bizarre situation whereby Nancy Pelosi could possibly become Speaker again by plurality at the start of the 113th Congress.  If the next House somehow had the same partisan breakdown as this one, that would require 49 Republicans to break ranks and vote for an insurgent (Michele Bachmann?) for Speaker.  This is unlikely.

The bigger concern for Republicans going forward is one raised in the New York Times report on the passage of the budget.  If Boehner can’t discipline the rightward quartile of his caucus over passage of a budget, what will happen in future negotiations?  If Boehner can’t work out a compromise with Senate Democrats and the President, he can eke-out only symbolic victories like the protest vote on repealing President Obama’s Health Care Reform.  (That bill sailed loudly but easily through the House and then inevitably disappeared into the ether.)  But the Speaker has made it clear he would rather see what he can substantively achieve with the political circumstances he’s been given.  If the Republicans who voted against the budget were to somehow become a coherent bloc who rejected compromise on controversial items, the Speaker would command fewer votes in the House than the Minority Leader, and House Republican Leadership would be forced into negotiations on the big budget battles with House Democrats.  He can form a unified front with the right wing of his caucus, but suburban Republicans may get cold feet (say, over a refusal to raise the Federal debt limit in coming months), and the Democrats have several means open to them to stall-out or veto a bill they haven’t had any say in.

To demonstrate efficacy, the Speaker of the House will have to do what seems to be his inclination anyway: He will have to keep making deals.  Some kind of a political center is developing here, though it’s too early to know what it looks like or even whether it is sustainable.

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2 thoughts on “We Have a Budget…and *Maybe* Even a Political Center

  1. Pingback: The House Republican Leadership Can’t Control Its Caucus | The Liberal Ironist

  2. Pingback: Another Not-so-Grand Bargain | The Liberal Ironist

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