Congressional Republicans have been losing the fight over government spending with President Barack Obama, but they like their odds against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. That’s the upshot of the House leadership’s latest budgetary gambit.
Originally, Republicans hoped to win budget reductions as part of the year-end fiscal cliff negotiations. Then they said they would fight for them when it came time to raise the debt ceiling. When the Republican-controlled House voted Wednesday for a three-month extension of the debt limit, they said they would target spending during the debate over the sequester and the continuing resolution.
Some conservatives felt the House Republican leadership was prolonging the inevitable, but many were won over by the “No Budget, No Pay” provision withholding lawmakers’ paychecks if they fail to produce a budget on time. The Democratic-controlled Senate hasn’t passed a budget since 2009.
“It took one week with Senate pay on the line, for them to step up,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tweeted after the bill passed the House, 285 to 144.
A number of conservatives were also swayed by the House leadership’s commitment to balance the budget in 10 years. The budget passed by the House last year didn’t balance until 2040. House Republicans are also pledging to support the sequester, saying they will negotiate on the composition of the across-the-board spending cuts but not the dollar amount.
Call it balancing political reality with balancing the budget. Republicans have a majority in the House, where tax and spending bills originate. But they don’t control the White House or Senate and can’t set fiscal policy on their own. So the GOP needs to frame the spending debate carefully to stand a chance at succeeding.
House Republicans hope that by shifting from a showdown with the president over the debt ceiling — with the nation’s credit rating hanging in the balance — to a confrontation with the Senate they are picking a fight they can actually win.
“We need an intervention on spending,” Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, formerly chairman of the Republican Study Committee, told The Daily Caller News Foundation after the the fiscal cliff deal passed. Jordan opposed both that legislation and House Speaker John Boehner’s failed “Plan B” alternative.
But Jordan voted with the leadership on Wednesday, along with current RSC chairman Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise and fellow past chairmen Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling and Georgia Rep. Tom Price.
“It’s simple: The American people expect Washington to pass a budget and live by it,” the four congressmen said in a statement after the plan was first announced. “No budget, no pay.”
Unlike Plan B, when activists felt blindsided by the GOP leadership’s sudden reversal on higher income tax rates for anyone, there was an effort to persuade conservatives inside and outside Congress of the merits before a vote. “Frankly,” Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist told The Daily Caller News Foundation at the time, “Republicans didn’t explain [Plan B] very well.”
“The Senate was never going to pass Plan B,” Michigan Rep. Justin Amash told The DC News Foundation after the final fiscal cliff vote. “So we would have ended up right where we are now.” This time, GOP leaders used the House Republican Conference’s January retreat to try to unify the rank-and-file behind their approach.
The fiscal cliff was difficult for Republicans because it involved the expiration of the Bush tax rates in addition to possible spending cuts. The GOP needed to take positive steps to avoid an across-the-board increase in income tax rates. When the three-month debt limit extension ends, Republicans hope their bargaining posture will be strengthened by having taxes off the table and the existing law on their side.
Still, 33 House Republicans — including Amash — voted against the No Budget No Pay Act. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul accused House leaders of waving “the white flag of surrender.” Paul’s allies at Campaign for Liberty released a statement the Friday before the vote saying, “The Republican retreat was only supposed to last a week, but now it appears it will last the entire 113th Congress.”
Disenchanted conservatives believe Republicans punted by voting to extend the borrowing limit without spending cuts and question whether the focus on the Senate’s budget-making will really bring about more favorable political conditions. Campaign for Liberty’s John Tate called it “a blank check to continued [President Obama’s] irresponsible spending and pile even more debt on the backs of our nation’s children.”
The House Republicans’ move nevertheless encountered less opposition from outside conservatives than either Plan B or the final fiscal cliff package. Club for Growth, which supports primary challenges against Republicans deemed too weak on taxes and spending, declined to oppose it.
But Club for Growth president Chris Chocola did criticize those Republicans he called the “weak-kneed caucus” Thursday. Roll Call quoted Chocola as saying he wished House Republicans were as willing to stand against public opinion for what they believed was right as Nancy Pelosi was in securing the passage of Obama’s health care reform law in 2009.
For GOP legislators, a lot is riding on whether their current strategy pays off in spending cuts, or they are still looking for leverage in May.
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