GOP takes upper hand

The opening gambit of the budget war was a smack-down, pure and simple. 

House Republicans, with their own rank and file in revolt just days before passing $61 billion in spending cuts for fiscal 2011, won the first battle of the newly divided government, with more than 100 House and all but four Senate Democrats voting to pass their continuing resolution to keep the government running. 

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By coupling some earmarks no one was willing to defend with budget cuts President Obama had proposed, House Republicans outsmarted Senate Democrats with their $4 billion, two-week stopgap bill. Senate Democrats decried the bill until they realized they couldn’t, then accepted it 48 hours later without a counteroffer. President Obama, as is his custom, stayed on the sidelines until he made a last-minute phone call to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) before the vote, asking to extend the measure an additional two weeks. No, the Speaker told him, extensions are not granted the day the homework is due.

House leadership aides confirm that no longer-term spending bill is expected to be negotiated by the time the current one expires March 18. But Boehner, intent on building momentum and retaining the upper hand, is keeping up the pressure. Having met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) over the weekend, Boehner said in a speech Wednesday, “I’m not sure whether Sen. Reid has a plan to cut spending and keep the government running. If he does, I think the American people would be interested in seeing it. If he doesn’t, I think he owes the American people an explanation.” 

To bolster the success of his shrewd strategy, Boehner was provided two assists this week. First, a Government Accountability Office report found that eliminating redundancies in government spending (82 offices monitoring teacher quality, for example) could save nearly $200 billion, and then Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, testified that the House GOP’s proposed $61 billion in cuts this year would not harm the economic recovery. Calling the Republican cuts “draconian” is suddenly much trickier for Democrats. 

Democrats are also finding their shutdown scare tactics don’t work as well as they did last month. New polling shows the parties would share the blame for shutting down the government. The GOP mantra is now about the need to cut spending while keeping the government — that they can’t stand — open and functioning on behalf of everyone who needs it. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said last week: “This will be our second action to avoid a shutdown, compared with no action by Senate leaders.” 

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) kicked off his presidential campaign this week by re-branding the shutdown of 1995. He insists the “short-term pain” set the stage for a balanced-budget deal in 1996 that produced “the largest drop in federal discretionary spending since 1969.” Gingrich warns Republicans that “becoming one more promise-breaking, Washington-dominated, sellout group is a much worse fate — politically and ethically — than having the government close for a few days.”

Not matter how much he would like them to, it’s doubtful many House Republicans are listening to Gingrich. But they are listening to the Tea Party, and with the non-controversial cuts off the table, the real fight begins. Several GOP members voted against the stopgap bill because it didn’t cut funding for the healthcare reform law. Conservatives are urging Boehner and other GOP leaders to stare the president down, and warn of the dire consequences of compromising too much for the sake of a deal. The fun part is over, but for now Boehner has the upper hand.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.