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In Wisconsin and Washington, budget battles reshape political landscape

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 9:29 PM

If the post-election lame-duck session belonged to President Obama, Republicans in Washington and the states have seized the offensive in the early weeks of 2011. But to what end?

Budget battles in Washington and Wisconsin - and soon in other states - provide Republicans with the opportunity to make good on their campaign promises from the last election. Whether Republican leaders can keep the public on their side as they try to implement their tough fiscal agendas will be the most influential question in the next election.

Only a partial answer will come from what happens in Washington, where Republicans have taken a significant first step. In the early hours of Saturday, House Republicans approved a measure that would cut more than $60 billion out of the budget and take aim at a number of Democratic constituencies and favored projects.

That measure is just the first of many anticipated battles over spending levels and priorities this year. The endgames could include everything from a government shutdown to a grand bargain between the president and Republican congressional leaders over entitlements. Or there could simply be middle-ground compromises that allow both sides to claim some measure of victory and leave activists on both sides frustrated or angry.

The decision by House Speaker John Boehner (R) to open up debate and allow numerous amendments offered Republicans, particularly the new freshman class, a chance to voice tea-party-inspired demands for bigger and bolder cuts than their elders might have preferred. The measure approved Saturday will stiffen Democratic resistance in the short term as a March 4 deadline for funding the government nears. Obama will be tested repeatedly by challenges from the opposition.

But as important as the battles in Washington may be, what happens in the states will be as or more significant in shaping public attitudes heading toward 2012. In Washington, Democrats still control the Senate and the White House, greatly limiting Republicans' ability to work their will. In many states, Republicans control the governor's mansion and both houses of the legislature, in some places by significant margins.

That's why Wisconsin looms so large at this moment. Gov. Scott Walker (R) has put down an early marker in the budget wars. His proposal to scale back benefits for public employees and, more dramatically, to curtail collective-bargaining rights for many of those workers, has triggered the most significant clash yet. Someone is likely to lose big in this battle, although it might take months for it to be clear who.

Madison has not had demonstrations like this in years, perhaps not since the Vietnam War. Obama's Organizing for America, an offshoot of the Democratic National Committee, has claimed some credit for helping to mobilize the protesters, but the demonstrations have been more bottom-up than top-down. Labor unions have been in the forefront, joined by other progressive groups and angry citizens.

The demonstrations in Madison and the reaction to the House budget measure raise an important question. Have Republicans, in their desire to move boldly and swiftly to deal with state and national budget problems, aroused the progressive wing of the Democratic Party? Through much of the Obama presidency, progressives have been quiescent, lethargic or disappointed. Now they are awake. And not just labor unions. There is a similar reaction among other groups - not just to events in Wisconsin but to some of the cuts in the House bill, such as the amendment to cut funding for Planned Parenthood.

If the progressive movement is truly awakened, Republicans could pay a significant price politically. Obama couldn't rouse it in the fall, at least not enough to avoid historic losses in November's midterm elections. Labor leaders couldn't, either. Labor unions spent heavily to try to defeat Republican candidates for governor. Now they see Wisconsin as part of a do-or-die struggle. But if they lose there, and in other states, the movement could be permanently weakened.

Some argue that Walker has gone too far by including public employees' bargaining rights as part of the package. Not every Republican governor plans such an assault. Still, labor and Democratic legislators are bracing for battles in other states, including Ohio, where protests have begun over a measure backed by Gov. John Kasich (R) that also would curtail bargaining rights.

Given the precarious condition of state budgets, there is some public support for reducing pension and health benefits for public employees. Favorability ratings for unions are at a historical low, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. And the public is divided over whether it supports unions or state governments in such disputes, though tipping slightly to the unions.

Walker has stood firm in the face of the Democrats' protests, sounding confident that he can win passage of his package and convince the public it is necessary. His fight has expanded beyond the borders of his state. Wisconsin's battle has gone national.

Walker is not the only governor setting the pace for the GOP. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took the unusual step of traveling to Washington last week to chide Obama for being too timid and too patient in the face of the federal government's fiscal problems.

Obama has moved with predictable caution. He suggests he is playing a longer game on the budget and will not allow criticism to rush him into laying out a plan for reining in entitlement programs. He called Walker's bill an "assault" on unions. That pleased union leaders, but others in the progressive movement see his response as tepid, given the stakes involved.

No one knows where this will end. What is clear is that we are in the early phase of a clash of ideas and a struggle for power that have profound implications for the country's future.

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