In budget fight, conservatives have put themselves in a corner

They are the strongest voices against a budget compromise: the conservative Republicans who have said they won’t accept a deal with Democrats on spending cuts, even if that means a government shutdown.

On Wednesday, some of them began to signal, without quite saying it, that they had put themselves in a bind.

If a shutdown comes, some conservatives said, it could seriously damage their political momentum. But, after winning an election on a no-compromise pledge, they saw nothing else they could do.

“I don’t want a shutdown,” said Rep. Tim Griffin (Ark.), one of 87 Republican freshmen, saying he thought Democratic leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) were trying to make it happen.

So why not accept the kind of compromise Democrats have talked about? That would avert a shutdown and let Republicans move on to other, more ambitious efforts to slash the budget.

Griffin said he couldn’t.

“They want to go to $33 [billion]” in cuts, Griffin said. “It’s like canceling HBO when you can’t afford your house payments. It’s not serious.”

These sentiments provide a window into an issue that has helped keep Congress from reaching agreement on the fiscal 2011 budget, even with a possible shutdown just days away. The strongest conservatives — including many freshmen — have promised to never compromise on their beliefs and to achieve historic changes in government spending.

Now, the first aim may be sabotaging the second.

“There are many Republicans that feel that they gave their word to their constituents that they wouldn’t back down,” which keeps them from agreeing to a deal in this fight, said Rep. Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y.), another freshman. Grimm said they should seek a compromise on a continuing resolution for this year’s budget and move on to what’s sure to be a larger fight over the 2012 budget.

Other Republicans have expressed similar sentiments. It may be, then, that a compromise could be reached without the support of the most aggressive budget-cutters.

“We have to keep our eye on the ball,” Grimm said. “We were sent here to really start bringing solutions to the problem. The CR [continuing resolution] can’t do that.”

‘Shut it down!’

For weeks, as a shutdown has loomed, a bloc of House conservatives has urged GOP leaders to resist calls for compromise. The same message has gone out over conservative talk radio and through tea party groups.

On Wednesday, at least one of them was as defiant as ever.

“If liberals in the Senate would rather play political games and force a government shutdown, instead of accepting a modest down payment on fiscal discipline and reform, I say, ‘Shut it down!’ ” yelled Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) at a tea party rally at the Capitol.

But other conservatives seemed to acknowledge that a shutdown could hand Democrats a much-needed victory.

Even as activists at the tea party rally chanted “Shut it down!,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) appeared to be doing damage control.

“There is no such thing as an actual government shutdown. We know that Social Security checks will continue to go out, the military will continue to go forward,” she said. The executive branch says the U.S. military would continue operations during a shutdown but service members would not be paid.

“There are a very large number of government employees that stay on the job. It is a government slowdown,” Bachmann said.

‘The right thing’

Fiscal conservatives have already won a historic change in Washington, forcing a small-government agenda on a government still largely controlled by Democrats.

But Wednesday, some began to recast themselves as victims of the other party.

“They want a government shutdown,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said at a morning news conference. And he said he knew why: The last government shutdowns, in 1995 and 1996, sapped momentum from a previous generation of ambitious Republicans and boosted the sagging fortunes of President Bill Clinton.

“The American people are a whole lot smarter this time,” Brooks said. “They know what the Democrats are up to.”

A series of Republicans repeated the charge: Democrats were seeking a shutdown because it was likely to help them.

So, a reporter asked, couldn’t you accept a spending compromise and deny them that chance? Are you really powerless?

Yes, said freshman Rep. Eric A. “Rick” Crawford (R-Ark.), who was leading the news conference. He said that until the Senate passes its budget, “we’re talking in hypotheticals.”

For other freshmen, however, it is hard to focus on the next issue.

“I just had two families from the district who just popped into my office after doing a tour,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.). “They are saying to me, ‘Don’t be afraid to shut this down, in pursuit of the right thing.’ ”

Huizenga said a $33 billion compromise wouldn’t be enough for him. But on the other hand, he said, allowing a shutdown “may play to the Chuck Schumers of the world,” naming the Democratic senator from New York.

“We don’t know,” Huizenga said, which course to choose without knowing the specifics of a deal. “We are all playing a game here that we’re not sure what the outcome’s going to be.”

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David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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