House Republicans appear to have gotten some of their mojo back. GOP leaders say they will insist that automatic spending cuts (the “sequester”) scheduled to begin on March 1 will be made and that the House will adopt a budget resolution that would lead to a balanced budget within ten years without raising any more taxes. Just a few months ago, they were singing a different, less fiscally tough tune.
On Wednesday, the House suspended the limit on the nation’s debt ceiling. That gives Republican lawmakers nearly four months to sort out what they will demand in exchange for raising it and puts that potentially market-spooking debate off until after budget battles over the scheduled sequester cuts and the expiration on March 27 of a continuing resolution to fund the government. Republicans view the political terrain on those issues as more favorable than that of any confrontation with President Obama and Harry Reid’s Senate over further spending cuts.
For once, it was Democrats who were split down the middle on how to handle a sensitive issue: The House voted 285 to 144 to pass the debt-limit suspension, with nearly half of Democrats supporting the measure and seven out of eight Republicans voting for it. President Obama has said he will sign the measure, despite his opposition to parts of it.
One big reservation Democrats have about the bill is that it ties congressional pay to passage of a budget plan. Members would see their salaries suspended if either chamber failed to pass a budget resolution by April 15 (the Senate hasn’t passed such a resolution since 2009). Any paychecks that were delayed would be held in escrow until the end of this Congress in late 2014.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer blasted the House for “holding hostage policy in an undemocratic, dictatorial fashion.” House speaker John Boehner responded: “The House is going to do its job; it’s time for the Senate to do their job. . . . Every hardworking taxpayer knows that they’ve got to do a budget. And every hardworking taxpayer expects Washington to do a budget as well, and if they don’t, why pay them?” Polling shows the “no budget, no pay” accountability provision is wildly popular with Americans regardless of party affiliation.
The new GOP hard line on the budget is a hopeful sign for many conservatives. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a plan of action to move the ball forward,” says Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman who now runs the free-market Club for Growth.
Chocola is worried that the higher taxes (payroll, capital-gains, etc.) imposed by the “fiscal cliff” deal earlier this month will slow the economy if they aren’t accompanied by evidence that Congress is willing to cut spending somewhere. “The conservative base also needs to know pro-growth Republicans are on offense,” he told NRO’s Bob Costa and me yesterday.
Chocola is sympathetic to the challenges facing Speaker Boehner and other GOP House leaders. “I think Boehner is a conservative and has all the right instincts,” he told us. “But over the years I have often heard him say he’s been around the House long enough ‘to know what you can’t do,’ and that he also isn’t king and can’t rule the GOP conference by decree.” That explains in large part why Boehner has often appeared whipsawed by the pressures of conservatives to move right and the practical realities of governing. But Chocola sees a change since the disappointments of the November election: “I think there’s a greater sense in the House leadership that new approaches have to be tried.”
Others on the right agree. This month, a group of influential conservatives sat down for a meeting with House leaders at the Heritage Foundation. Attending the meeting was former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, a movement conservative, who is in the process of taking over the Heritage presidency from Ed Feulner.
“Whereas there used to be pushback against sticking to the sequester cuts and balancing the budget over ten years rather than the 26 years in the original Ryan budget, there was now a sense that the voters could be sold on that idea. After all, families have no choice but to do it every month,” one prominent social-conservative leader told me. “There was also a recognition that if they retreated from the sequester spending cuts they would lose credibility.” For a change, both outside conservative leaders and the House leadership left the meeting almost completely on the same policy and political pages.
A lot of details in the new GOP strategy still have to be cleared up. Many Republicans worry that the defense cuts in the sequester are so deep that they would hollow out the military’s preparedness to such an extent that they couldn’t be repaired even with a later urgent supplemental appropriation. Many northeastern Republican moderates will argue they can’t defend domestic budget cuts to their constituents. But the new assertiveness on the budget is for now both clear and resolute.
“We spent the last two years adjusting policy in the House away from conservative positions to get things done,” Chocola says. “I now see leadership potentially telling moderates in the House that they have to adjust if Republicans are going to try to stop more debt and spending.”
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.