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ThePlumLIneGS whorunsgov plumline
Posted at 09:11 AM ET, 04/09/2011

Budget debate was fought entirely on the GOP’s turf

Updated below with the Dem perspective.

So at the 11th hour, House GOPers and Senate Dems struck a deal to cut $37.8 billion from the budget for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, while getting rid of the Planned Parenthood rider that had been at the center of the final standoff. A few quick thoughts about the deal.

* The GOP got more than it originally asked for. The original budget proposal submitted by Republicans called for $32 billion in cuts, until House conservatives demanded significantly more. Boehner ended up winning over $5 billion more than he originally asked for, even as he derided Dems who had agreed to his own original target figure as fundamentally unserious about spending.

* Boehner essentially won his first test with conservatives. From the outset, Boehner’s game plan was obvious: His intention was to drag this out as long as possible, and bring us as close to the brink of a shutdown as possible, in order to make it easier to sell the final compromise to conservatives who are insisting on a deeply unhinged amount of cuts. He can now quite credibly tell conservatives that he proved his willingness to engage in white-knuckled brinkmanship until the very last minute to put maximum pressure on the White House — which never wanted a shutdown — in order to extract maximum concessions.

Sure, some conservatives are grumbling about the final deal, and one Tea Party group is threatening to primary Boehner. But as Paul Kane notes today, it’s unclear how widespread conservative unhappiness will be in the end. Boehner has a simple message to them: By taking it to the brink and winning more than we originally asked for, we put Dems on notice that we’re dead serious about taking it to the edge of armageddon again in the bigger fights to come, when the stakes will be far higher. It remains to be seen whether unrealistic conservative expectations will pose a larger problem for Boehner in later fights, but it seems clear that Boehner pulled off a very good play under difficult circumstances, likely rendering short-term conservative grumbling mostly a non-factor. The big story here — one that I believe conservatives will ultimately agree with — is that Boehner largely dictated the terms of this debate.

* The budget debate was fought entirely on GOP turf, shifting the “center” way over to the right. Indeed, for all the talk about conservatives wanting more out of this deal, the simple truth is that this battle was fought almost entirely on their terms. By agreeing to steep, if temporary, cuts in advance, Dems acceded to the GOP’s austerity/cut-cut-cut frame at the very outset, and the debate unfolded entirely on that rhetorical turf.

President Obama’s advisers apparently believe that his best route to reeelection is to acknowledge the need for more fiscal discipline, while picking a fight with the GOP over the need for targeted government investment in our future and painting the GOP’s cut-at-all-costs vision as out of the mainstream. In fairness, his advisers, as Paul Krugman noted recently, may very well be right about this.

But it’s still worth appreciating how far to the right the debate has shifted, in part because of Democratic acquiescence. The idea that government spending should be a job-creation tool in our arsenal was entirely marginalized, to the point that it was simply not part of the dicsussions; meanwhile, the insane conservative demand for $100 billion in cuts was treated as a kind of outer right-wing boundary of legitimate discourse. The result: Giving Boehner more than he originally asked for in cuts became the stuff of middle ground compromise.

* The White House never wanted a shutdown, and let the right dictate the terms of the debate to avoid one. Obama and his advisers always viewed this battle as a chance to rerun the tax-cut-deal game plan, a second opportunity to play the ”adult in chief” peace-keeping role, as the Beltway cliche has it. The result: Republicans knew full well that the White House wouldn’t allow a government shutdown, allowing them to continue to move the spending-cut goalposts in the knowledge that Dems would follow — again ensuring that the debate unfolded on the GOP’s turf.

Indeed, Obama’s weekly address on the deal explicitly drew a parallel to the tax cut compromise and even appeared to lend support to the right wing’s austerity framing of the debate. “Beginning to live within our means is the only way to protect those investments that will help America compete for new jobs,” Obama said, boasting that the deal amounts to “the largest annual spending cut in our history.”

Again, it’s very possible Obama’s advisers are right about the route back to reelection. People routinely note that voters don’t care about deficits, but Obama’s advisers may still be right to worry that attacks on Dems as overspenders fuels a larger narrative about Obama’s alleged reversion to unrepentant partisanship and liberalism that alienates middle-of-the-road voters and compromises the brand that has been key to his political success.

Still, even if this is true, the question is this: How much are Dems going to be asked to trade away in core liberal priorities in the execution of this strategy? The stakes in the next fights — Medicare, for instance — are much higher.

* The showdown over Planned Parenthood was an admirable moment for Democrats. Harry Reid and Dems deserve credit for drawing a bright line on Planned Parenthood funding and refusing to budge. It’s true that the GOP’s insertion of the Planned Parenthood rider into the debate at the last minute gave them more leverage to push up the level of spending cuts even higher. It’s also true, as Digby noted, that the Dems’ drawing of a bright line on Planned Parenthood felt a bit like an effort to take a stand on something to buy off the base, even as Dems kept capitulating on spending cuts. But nonetheless, Boehner was ultimately forced to cave on this point, and it showed that Dems look strong when they fight and refuse to budge. The degree to which this spirit will animate Dems in future fights remains to be seen.

UPDATE: A Democrat emails the Dem perspective on the wins they secured:

1) $17 BILLION IN CHIMPS -- WE SPREAD OUT THE CUTS ACROSS OTHER PARTS OF THE BUDGET. We insisted that meeting in the middle on cuts would require looking beyond domestic discretionary spending—and we prevailed. More than half—or $17 billion—of the final round of spending cuts came from changes in mandatory programs, or CHIMPs. The emphasis on this part of the budget staved off severe cuts to key domestic programs like education, clean energy, and medical research.

2.) $3B IN PENTAGON SAVINGS -- WE PROVED DoD WASTE SHOULD NOT BE SPARED. We won the argument that waste at the Pentagon should not be immune from spending cuts. The final agreement eliminates nearly $3 billion in unnecessary Pentagon spending that was contained in H.R. 1. These reductions are supported by Secretary Gates.

3) TITLE X PRESERVED -- WE FOUGHT OFF ATTACKS ON WOMEN’S HEALTH. We fended off their highest priority among the riders by nixing their proposal to gut Title X funds that provide cancer screenings and other preventative health services for women. The Republicans’ overreach on this rider in the final days dramatically weakened their hand.

By  |  09:11 AM ET, 04/09/2011

 
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