For all the exhausting late-night drama (debate dragged on until nearly dawn on Saturday) and occasional chaos (hundreds of amendments and dozens of roll-call votes) surrounding the House’s consideration of a bill to fund the government through September, the real page-turner occurred off the floor.
In the final days before House GOP leaders brought up the legislation, they buckled before a sustained rebellion from first-term members who wanted more spending cuts. This uprising could have dramatic and long-lasting implications for every other decision that leaders of the new House majority make as they prepare their 2012 budget and gird for a vote on raising the debt ceiling—actions that will dominate Washington in the months ahead.
House Republicans see the continuing resolution on funding (the CR, in budget argot) as a crucial early test of their overall fiscal strategy and the key to maintaining their majority in 2012. The way they navigate the CR endgame could, in large measure, determine how aggressively they approach the larger challenge of developing a long-term budget plan, including reform of the big entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security.
Significantly, House GOP leaders sought a more cautious approach and were forced to act more aggressively. They now talk openly of pursuing entitlement reforms this year (aides vow cuts to “wasteful” entitlements in March and to structural reforms thereafter). What’s more, Speaker John Boehner says that no matter what position the White House or the Senate take, he won’t move any short-term CR to keep the government open that doesn’t include at least some spending cuts.
This newfound aggressiveness arises out of the CR’s near-death experience and the GOP leadership’s abrupt reversals to revive it. After freshman Republicans rejected a more modest version, the resolution, expected to pass late this week, seeks the largest discretionary spending cuts in American history—$100 billion from President Obama’s 2011 budget request and $61 billion from enacted 2010 spending levels. That is several orders of magnitude larger than then-Speaker Newt Gingrich sought during the 1995 Republican revolution; back then, the GOP managed a comparatively meager $16.3 billion in cuts, or $22.7 billion in 2009 dollars.
Democrats immediately attacked the extent of the proposed Republican cuts, saying that the plan threatens clean air and water and endangers the poor and sick, including homeless veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Expect even tougher criticism as the bill heads to the Senate. President Obama has already promised to veto the House product.
Yet House Republican leaders ultimately had no choice but to accept a bill that guarantees a head-on collision with Democrats. Initially, they sought a smaller spending cut that equaled $58 billion from Obama’s 2011 request and $32 billion from enacted 2010 spending. On February 8, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., asked Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, leader of the conservative Republican Study Group, to support the CR even though it fell short of the $100 billion in cuts promised in the “Pledge to America,” the party’s 2010 campaign manifesto. Jordan didn’t commit. He knew that the freshmen and others were in an uproar.
At 9 a.m. on February 9, House Republicans convened in room HC-5 of the Capitol for a meeting scheduled to last one hour. Six GOP leaders—among them Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, and McCarthy—pleaded for support. The floor was open to dissenters at 9:58 a.m. Ten rose; all opposed the CR. Each had one minute to speak—a clear sign that the leaders were trying to run out the clock and squeeze the skeptics.
Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida spoke last. He had taken Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s PowerPoint presentation to three town-hall meetings the week before and promised to achieve the pledged $100 billion in cuts. When he saw the smaller leadership-backed CR, Southerland said, he was “crushed.”
Southerland, a third-generation funeral director and a political newcomer, stood at the microphone. He recalls how none of the GOP leaders averted their eyes, not even to check their BlackBerrys. Southerland said he understood the call for unity and family cohesion. But he told the hushed room, “My family wouldn’t do to me what was done to me last week. I want you to know there is a limit to how far I will follow. I may lose in 2012, but I will not lose me.”
At that instant, House GOP leaders knew they had lost the room. The meeting adjourned, and, one day later, Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky announced that his committee would meet the $100 billion target.
The immediate question is whether the revolt has carried House Republicans onto ground that they cannot politically defend. Even some deficit hawks who support discretionary-spending cuts believe that the House GOP caucus acted impetuously. “That figure—$100 billion—probably goes too far and will backfire,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “It’s not a thoughtful exercise.”
The longer-term question is how this early rebellion will reshape the balance of power within the caucus. House GOP leaders say they averted a crisis, pulled together their majority, and forged ahead after all appeared lost. The freshmen share that characterization, with one caveat: They wouldn’t and couldn’t be deterred. More budget battles loom, and Republican House leaders now know that the determination to defy conventional political calculations runs deep among the shock troops in their expectant freshman class.
This article appears in the February 19, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.