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Analysis: GOP won first bout of budget battle

BY GUEST OPINION | APRIL 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Republican conservatives were the chief winners in the budget deal that forced Democrats to accept historic spending cuts they strongly opposed.

Emboldened by last fall’s election victories, fiscal conservatives have changed the debate in Washington. The question no longer is whether to cut spending but how deeply. Rarely mentioned is the idea of higher taxes to lower the deficit.

But more difficult decisions lie ahead, and it’s not clear whether GOP lawmakers can rely on their winning formula. They pushed Democrats to the brink, then gave in just enough to claim impressive achievements rather than holding the line and triggering a government shutdown that might have yielded far less politically.

The GOP victories came on spending. Their concessions dealt mainly with social issues, where they tried to limit abortions and restrict environmental rules.

House Republicans who care intensely about such social issues may fight harder next time, giving Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, fewer bargaining chips to appease Democrats. Tea Party Republicans, some of whom found the cuts too small in the April 8 last-minute agreement, might insist on deeper ones from now on.

Two fast-approaching debates could make this past week’s showdown look like a preliminary skirmish.

Congress soon must vote to increase the government’s borrowing limit to avoid the first-ever default on U.S. loan payments. With the 2011 budget battle still fresh, lawmakers are now focusing on the spending debate for the fiscal year that will begin Oct. 1. The House Budget Committee has approved, on a partisan vote, a bill that would cut spending by $5.8 trillion over 10 years and make major cost-saving changes to the Medicare and Medicaid health programs.

These are the big-picture, big-money issues that Tea Partyers have awaited eagerly. Many have pledged to vote against a higher debt ceiling without major give-backs from Senate Democrats and President Obama. The 2012 spending blueprint written by the House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is on a collision course with Democrats determined to allow only modest changes, if any, to Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs.

Obama’s re-election chances will depend partly on his ability to resolve these issues ahead. With some skill and luck, he may emerge either as a pragmatic problem-solver or the man who took reasonable stands against an out-of-the-mainstream GOP that forced a government shutdown or debt default.

Boehner, a skilled legislator, spent weeks talking with House conservatives who insisted on $61 billion in current-year spending cuts. That was the prorated remainder of conservatives’ campaign pledge to cut $100 billion in the 2011 budget year, now half over.

Democrats complained bitterly about the first $10 billion in cuts, but eventually said they could not go above $33 billion. The final deal calls for $38.5 billion in cuts.

Boehner and his lieutenants repeatedly told the adamant budget-cutters, some of them new to public office, that they were getting a good deal. A short time ago, he told them, Democrats would not have considered anything approaching $40 billion. Take your victory and get ready for the next fight, he urged them.

The main price? Surrendering — for now at least — Republican efforts to end federal support for Planned Parenthood and to bar the government from regulating greenhouse gases.

Boehner persuaded enough Republicans to go along. Soon the country will see if he can repeat the feat with social conservatives who think it’s now their turn to prevail, and with anti-spending advocates who viewed last week as an appetizer for an upcoming feast on federal programs and costs.

Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for the Associated Press.


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