For right and left, spending deal just ‘the undercard’ to bigger fights

Correction: Earlier versions of this column incorrectly identified Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) as the House Budget Committee’s ranking Republican. He is the panel’s ranking Democrat. This version has been corrected.

April 11, 2011

It’s a cliche of Washington compromises that if both ends of the political spectrum are unhappy with a deal, then maybe it turned out just right.

In the case of the spending deal to avert a government shutdown struck late Friday night among President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), it appears that one side of the ideological divide is unhappier than the other.

Two leading members of the House’s liberal and conservative wings said in separate interviews Monday that they were still digesting the deal and waiting to hear specific details.

While Rep. Scott Garrett (N.J.) of the conservative Republican Study Committee had praise for the way Boehner handled the talks, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was much less pleased with his party’s performance at the negotiating table.

“As more details come out, I’m afraid to say that we rolled over as Democrats,” said Grijalva, co-chairman of the CPC.

The agreement reached by Obama, Reid and Boehner would cut $38 billion in spending through the end of September, more than most Democrats would have preferred. But it does not contain provisions to cut off funding for Obama’s health-care plan and Planned Parenthood, which Republicans had included in the House-passed bill.

The problem, Grijalva said, is that he considered this spending fight to be just the “undercard,” while the “real fight” will occur this week during debate on the fiscal 2012 budget plan and then in the coming months fracas over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling.

By conceding so much on the spending front to Republicans now, Grijalva said, “I think you set the template for what’s going to happen with [House Budget Chairman Paul] Ryan’s legislation and what’s going to happen with the debt ceiling.”

Garrett, the head of the RSC’s budget and spending task force, joined 53 other Republicans in voting against the three-week continuing resolution that passed March 15. He wouldn’t say Monday whether he would vote for the latest agreement, but his review was mostly positive.

“I think Boehner did an admirable job fighting for the conservative positions,” Garrett said, given that at times it was “three versus one” — Boehner negotiating at the White House with Obama, Reid and Vice President Biden.

Because 54 Republicans voted against the three-week CR, is that a good estimate of how many will vote no this time around? “Probably around there or a little lower,” Garrett said, adding that last week “I saw some members who voted no last time . . . stand up and say this was a good deal and let’s move on.”

Garrett and Grijalva agree on one point: It’ll only get harder from here.

If $38 billion in cuts “is that hard for the Senate to accept, how will they ever accept the $89 billion that’s in the first year of the Ryan plan?” Garrett asked. “The 38 is just a drop in the bucket.”

While Garrett sees this week’s fight over the budget as mostly about rhetoric — “It will pass. We’ll get 218 for something,” he predicted — he thinks raising the debt ceiling will be much more complicated.

Personally, Garrett said, he’d vote to raise the debt limit only “if there’s significant conditions added to it,” including some procedural reforms and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

The other question, he said, is “If we raise the debt limit this time, for how much and for how long?”

If the ceiling is raised just enough that another vote is required in the middle of the presidential election season next year, he said, “it’ll be horrific on both sides because each side will be digging their heels in even more.”

On the left, Grijalva worries that as the debt-ceiling debate approaches, “the precedent seems to be to [let Republicans] extract as much as possible, and we seem to be conceding on all these points.”

And he thinks Obama and Democratic leaders need to do a better job on the public relations front.

“We’re not taking the argument out to the American people the way we should,” Grijalva said. “We are not doing enough to compare and contrast . . . and offering alternatives.”

Democrats will have that chance during this week’s budget debate, as the House Budget Committee’s ranking Democrat, Chris Van Hollen (Md.), will offer the party’s official budget blueprint and the CPC will offer its own budget alternative.

In the negotiating cast that Garrett described in the White House — Boehner, Reid, Biden and Obama — no House Democrats were present, and there’s little evidence they were consulted.

Ultimately, Grijalva said, “we’ve been made to be moot points in this discussion.”

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