The Budget Deal Is a Godsend to GOP Senators

Patty Murray and Paul Ryan have done the Republicans a big favor, even if they don’t want to acknowledge it publicly.

Members of the bipartisan budget conference Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) discuss their initial meeting at the U.S. Capitol October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congress voted last night to fund the federal budget and increase the nation's debt limit, ending a 16-day government shutdown. 
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Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Dec. 12, 2013, 4 p.m.

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.

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