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Post Partisan
Posted at 01:28 PM ET, 04/13/2011

Harnessing conservative anger over the budget deal

The Post reports in a front-page story today that “President Obama faces a growing rebellion on the left” thanks to his budget deal with House Republicans and new focus on deficits, with “key liberal groups . . . raising concerns that he has given up political ground to Republicans, allowing the message of reducing government to trump that of creating jobs and lowering the unemployment rate”and threatening “to sit out the 2012 presidential campaign.” 

Meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner is facing a rebellion of his own, as the details of the budget deal he negotiated with Obama emerge. The more conservatives learn about the deal, the less they like it.  Over at National Review, my colleagues Shannen Coffin, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru are all pointing to this Associated Press story that shows that many of the so-called spending “cuts” in the deal are in fact illusory:

[T]he cuts that actually will make it into law are far tamer, including cuts to earmarks, unspent census money, leftover federal construction funding, and $2.5 billion from the most recent renewal of highway programs that can’t be spent because of restrictions set by other legislation. Another $3.5 billion comes from unused spending authority from a program providing health care to children of lower-income families. . . . For instance, the spending measure reaps $350 million by cutting a one-year program enacted in 2009 for dairy farmers then suffering from low milk prices. Another $650 million comes by not repeating a one-time infusion into highway programs passed that same year. And just last Friday, Congress approved Obama’s $1 billion request for high-speed rail grants — crediting themselves with $1.5 billion in savings relative to last year.

It turns out the actual cuts to discretionary spending may only amount to $14.7 billion.

Bottom line: Conservatives feel swindled, and some House Republicans are even saying they will not support the deal when it comes to a vote tomorrow. 

Their anger is understandable. But rather than tank this deal, they should pocket the smaller-than-expected savings and move on to the next fight — the battle over raising the debt limit — where the grounds for victory are more hospitable. They should do so chastened by this experience, and determined to exact even larger concessions.

As I pointed out my column Monday, unlike the fight over the government shutdown, the GOP holds all the cards in the debt limit fight. Obama’s weapon in last week’s standoff was his veto — his willingness to kill the temporary spending bill House Republicans passed and allow the government to close. In the debt-limit fight, this weapon is not available to him. Using the veto would cause the government to default, something the president cannot — and will not — allow. All House Republicans have to do, if negotiations bog down, is start passing a series of small debt-limit increases to keep the government solvent — and attach large spending cuts to each one. Obama will have no choice but to sign them. Republicans can keep doing this over and over again until Obama capitulates. 

This means the GOP leadership has no excuse to cut a bad deal with Obama, as it appears they did last week. Conservatives should take the growing anger on the right over the now-exposed gimmickry in the current budget deal, and use it to hold the GOP leadership’s feet to the fire next time around. They should insist that that the GOP make big demands in exchange for raising the debt limit — and stick to them.  They should demand enactment of all the reforms and spending cuts proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, as well as passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.      

In the fight over a government shutdown, Speaker Boehner may or may not have cut the best deal with the president — both sides had leverage. But in the debt-limit fight, all the leverage is on the GOP side.   There is no excuse for capitulation, no excuse for budget gimmicks — and no excuse for failure.

By  |  01:28 PM ET, 04/13/2011

 
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