If the State of the Union address was designed to transform President Obama into an irresistible force for optimism and ebullience about America’s limitless horizons (9.4 percent unemployment notwithstanding), congressional Republicans are content to be cast as the immovable object.
The speech has not deterred House Republicans even a little from pushing their agenda of spending reductions far deeper than the discretionary freeze Obama called for. They are preparing to seek at least $55 billion in cuts to the White House’s fiscal 2012 budget, which comes out in mid-February. That figure could rise to as much as $70 billion if Republicans add selected Pentagon cuts to the mix, as they are debating privately. These reductions will lay the foundation for still more later on, when House Republicans write the spending bills for fiscal 2012. “He hasn’t intimidated us; he’s emboldened us,” said Rep. David Dreier of California, “the Rules Committee chairman. “We will use his speech, parts of it at least, to push our agenda.”
To the degree that House Republicans are divided on spending reductions, the differences are only over magnitude. As numerous leadership aides said, a division would exist if any Republicans opposed deep cuts. Not one does, at least not in the House. The direction is clear and, if anything, even sharper in the wake of Obama’s call for a five-year net freeze on discretionary spending (where priority “investments” would increase while other budget items would shrink).
“Ephemeral” was the word that Republicans most frequently used to describe the president’s address. Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team sent the word out on Wednesday—as a reminder, not a marching order—to ignore upbeat flash polls on the speech. Senate Republicans appeared similarly unmoved; they are warming to the debate over spending cuts that their House colleagues are about to set in motion.
Obama may have made inroads with two key voting blocs in his broad 2008 coalition—independents and loosely affiliated Republicans—but he hasn’t shaken the newly minted Republicans who forced this Reaganesque recalibration of Obama’s rhetoric. “I don’t think a single one of our freshmen left the floor thinking, ‘Maybe I’d better rethink why I’m here,’ ” a top GOP leadership aide said. “The White House would deny this, but after his first two years in office, you can’t get to the center without backpedaling—and backpedaling a lot.”
Whatever direction Obama moves, House Republicans are preparing to walk into what they privately acknowledge will be a political buzz saw. “We are in the early stages of a big, big fight,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. Another top GOP leadership aide described the coming conversations: “Stuff you like is going to be cut. Stuff everyone likes is going to be cut.”
At the forefront will be new Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky. He has vowed to carry out the leadership’s marching orders even though these cuts will dwarf those that the Gingrich-led House produced in 1995 ($16.7 billion). And in a little-noted but highly significant staff change, Staff Director Bill Inglee, a former Lockheed Martin lobbyist who worked for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, is crafting cuts to spread the political pain as widely as possible. That’s in contrast, party insiders say, to previous GOP Appropriations aides, who fashioned cuts mainly to keep the budget knife away from the Appropriations pie.
Still, championing cuts in domestic discretionary spending three times larger than those of the Gingrich revolution will require all of the guile and tea party intensity that Boehner can channel. The GOP may not have to deal with the debt ceiling until May or June because of the Treasury Department’s flexibility in scheduling bond auctions, calling in cash balances, and redeeming securities in civil-service pensions—methods used to avoid default in 1995 and 1985. Between now and then, party leaders plan a series of votes to build support for raising the debt ceiling above the current $14.3 trillion limit. They see that final test as the culmination, rather than the midpoint, of a spending tug-of-war with Obama.
But an even bigger clash looms, one with potentially far-reaching consequences for the White House and the House Republican majority. Dreier and Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chairman of the House GOP Conference, both told National Journal thatthe party’s budget resolution would likely transform Medicare from a direct government-payment service (for doctor’s visits, hospitalization, and subsidized prescription-drug coverage) to a voucher that individuals would use to purchase medical coverage on the open market.
The plan, originated by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, could develop into a voucher linked to defined-benefit packages currently available to members of Congress and other federal employees. Republicans are trying to walk a fine line between seriousness on budget matters and the political peril that Ryan’s transformation idea would entail. Any casual student of the 1995 government shutdown remembers that proposed GOP Medicare changes (Democrats called them cuts, Republicans said they were reductions in the rate of increase) gave President Clinton a path to reelection.
Obama’s speech struck a tone of reasonableness that Republicans are betting the voters won’t remember by Super Bowl Sunday. That’s a calculation born partly of hubris. The president came to the House seemingly humbled by his November “shellacking,” but his opponents interpreted his State of the Union speech as a sign of weakness. Of course, Gingrich thought much the same about Clinton when a debt crisis and budget showdown loomed. And everyone remembers how that turned out. That era’s irresistible force won reelection, and the immovable object, on budget matters at least, turned into Jell-O.
This article appears in the January 29, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.