On the surface, the politics of this week’s budget deal might look bad for Senate Republicans. Conservative groups took aim at the deal even before it was formally unveiled. Tea-party primary challengers are lining up to bash the two-year budget as insufficiently true to conservative values. And, perhaps, most nauseating to the conference: Majority Leader Harry Reid embraced the plan and lavished praise on it.
Accordingly, top Senate Republicans are telegraphing their opposition, despite its passage in the House on Thursday. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been mum, but he abhors busting the budget caps. Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who this week got a high-profile primary challenger in Rep. Steve Stockman, said he’s likely to vote no. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the Senate’s No. 4 Republican, says he doesn’t support it “at first blush.”
But appearances can be deceiving, and the reality is that the deal is likely to be very good news for Senate Republicans, particularly those who are worried about reelection next year. For once, they don’t have to be the adults in the room.
That’s because most Senate Republicans can vote against the measure with impunity, knowing that it’s likely to pass with overwhelming support from Democrats and a smattering of their GOP colleagues in safe seats. Senate Republicans can publicly bemoan the shortcomings of the deal and complain that it doesn’t address entitlement spending and lacks a long-term blueprint to reduce the deficit. In short, they can sound just as exasperated with the budget agreement as their tea-party challengers and conservative critics.
But, assuming the measure passes, they can also avoid fallout over a government shutdown like the one in October, which badly hurt the GOP in opinion polls. “We took the brunt of the shutdown blame,” said a senior GOP aide. “No doubt—it’s a good thing for us.” Put another way, if Senate Republicans blocked the budget agreement, they would play into what a senior Democratic aide called “one of our favorite narratives on them,” obstructionism. “I don’t think anybody on either side wants a government shutdown,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. “We need to get this behind us.”
One reason GOP senators are getting a pass this time has to do with how the budget deal was put together. The lead negotiators, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., were intent on reaching an agreement they could sell to their respective caucuses. Not surprisingly, Senate Democrats have supported Murray by rallying behind the plan. Although not as united, key members of the House Republican Conference also lined up behind Ryan and voted for the deal Thursday. The process left Senate Republicans on the sidelines.
The biggest problem Republicans have with the Ryan-Murray plan is that it raises discretionary spending beyond the $967 billion level mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act, to $1.012 trillion for fiscal 2014. The deal pays for the increase partly through a hike in fees, another point of GOP contention. “If you’re really going to deal with spending, you have to deal with the whole budget,” said Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska. “Charging somebody more for their airplane ticket is not really a way to solve the budget crisis for the federal government.”
Still, these new spending levels—if enacted—will take budget talks out of the congressional conversation through 2015. For Senate Republicans, that likely means achieving broader reforms is off the table until after the midterms. “Some people are apparently willing to give up the spending caps for just more spending and no entitlement reform,” Cornyn said. “That was always the deal most of us hoped for—to shore up Social Security and Medicare—and that would be worth it. But to give up the spending caps for more spending is a little disappointing.”
The failure to deal with Social Security and Medicare, however, could also work to the GOP’s advantage in the midterms, shielding Republicans from casting potentially controversial votes to trim spending on the popular entitlement programs. Opinion polls show that while the idea of long-term deficit reduction has widespread support, specific plans to cut Social Security benefits or Medicare spending are viewed much more skeptically. With the elderly an increasingly important part of the Republican electoral coalition, GOP political strategists worry about policy measures that could jeopardize their backing.
Republican members acknowledge that the brokering of a deal could help ease the legislative logjam in the Senate. For instance, no appropriations bills made it out of the chamber this year, and the rapport between the parties has gotten so frosty ever since Reid invoked the so-called nuclear option that Republicans staged a talkathon on the floor designed to use up all the debate time on 10 presidential nominations. Looking to next year’s appropriations process, GOP senators express guarded optimism at the prospect of keeping the government funded. “To do an appropriations process, you have to have a number. This will do that,” Boozman said. “So that will allow that process to go forward. That’s probably the most positive part.”
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the former House majority leader and whip, all but dared Reid not to bring appropriations bills to the floor next year, suggesting the majority leader was shielding his vulnerable members up for reelection from taking difficult votes. “I’d like to see one of the results of what happens this week be that the Senate for the first time since Senator Reid became majority leader actually [does] the work the way it’s supposed to be done of spending people’s money—bring the bills to the floor,” Blunt said.
Whether Blunt gets his wish remains to be seen. Protecting vulnerable incumbents from tough votes is a long-standing tradition in the Senate. And, as Republicans are demonstrating with their reaction to the budget agreement, the tradition isn’t confined to Democrats.
This article appears in the December 14, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as What a Deal for GOP Senators.