Don’t risk a shutdown

The release of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) controversial budget this week was timed to sway Tea Party-backed freshman Republicans and veteran fiscal hawks standing in the way of a budget deal to fund the government for the next six months. The Ryan plan should convince these conservatives to fold tent and compromise, declare victory on the more than half a loaf Democrats have offered in spending cuts and move on to bigger debates, like whether to raise the debt ceiling. They should do so not because the Ryan budget will pass, but because it won’t. 

The courageous budget Ryan wrote, which would cut $6.2 trillion from our deficit in the next decade by curbing mandatory spending, signals that Republicans are willing to risk political loss to do the right thing. The political timing of its release, however, has created other risks. For one, the public could blame a government shutdown on the Republican plan to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called “a path to poverty for America’s seniors and children and a road to riches for Big Oil.” No matter that the Ryan budget for 2012 has nothing to do with the $33 billion to $61 billion in discretionary cuts to fiscal 2011 spending now under negotiation — the message is too easily muddled. Even without any confusion, the gamble of a shutdown is one Republicans aren’t likely to win, as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told his conference Monday. 

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Yet the hard-liners, fueled by the clamor of unyielding outside conservative groups, favor confrontation over negotiation and have thus far driven the internal debate among Republicans. When Boehner said Tuesday, “We are not going to allow the Senate nor the White House to put us in a box,” it wasn’t a truthful description of the box he is in. According to leadership sources, though the group of purists might total only several dozen at most, the external threats are now potent enough to put far more votes in play in the event that those purists deem a package to be a capitulation instead of a deal. 

No matter the outcome, Republicans will soon be voting for Ryan’s budget, a principled stand sure to invite political assault and perhaps ultimately imperil their control of the House of Representatives. It will be a vote to torpedo Medicare, Democrats will say, but it can’t bring the deficit down since it can’t pass the Senate. There will be no time to educate voters on why “premium support” doesn’t mean a voucher system. A backlash can become strong enough, quickly enough, that the time it takes a Republican to explain why the party is preserving the safety net for seniors by rescuing the program far exceeds the time it takes an angry attendee at a town hall to throw something at him onstage. Just ask the Democrats who defended healthcare reform against GOP charges that they were cutting Medicare to fund new coverage.

Boehner has fought hard, with political knives in his back, for a deal that Republicans can live with. Any package totaling more than $32 billion in cuts, as the original GOP bill called for, represents a triumph for the GOP. President Obama even admitted so to Boehner on Tuesday. No serious deficit reduction will occur without Democratic votes, or the election of more Republicans. Should the government close this weekend, and economists join Democrats in declaring that such political jihad has dealt a blow to economic recovery, Boehner will still be forced to take the last deal on the table anyway and call it a win. 

Republicans — take yes for an answer now, and take a victory lap. But don’t take a risk on a shutdown. 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.