The GOP Can Win the Budget Battle Without a Government Shutdown

Republicans need to maintain commitment to fiscal discipline without committing political suicide.

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At almost 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, the House passed their version of the FY2012 budget. Riding the conservative, Tea Party wave, newly elected Republicans succeeded (for the most part) in slashing spending on hundreds of government departments, agencies, and projects. Although many complained the cuts didn't slice deep enough, all but three Republicans voted in favor of the bill.

Speaker of the House John Boehner deserves credit for navigating the cumbersome aircraft carrier-sized legislation. Boehner is largely credited with a win for overseeing an open and fair process as well as generally placating an increasingly diverse caucus. Conservative freshman House members can now report back to their constituencies that their first acts in Washington matched their campaign rhetoric. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

The legislation now moves to the Senate, with precious little time to spare. The current government funding expires on March 4. Should the Senate fail to pass and President Obama fail to sign a budget, a government shutdown looms. If, how, and in what form the budget passes the Senate is entirely another devil. Assuming the Senate does pass some legislation (and, given the increasing number of Senators posturing toward the center for reelection in both parties, it appears likely) negotiations between the leaders of both houses and the president will serve as the crucial act in this political theater. Boehner is on record against a government shutdown, but many conservatives in his caucus insist compromise with the White House would betray their dedication to fiscal discipline. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a bit more cagey on the prospect of a government shutdown.

Politically, this is an important but difficult needle to thread for Republicans.

One need look no further than the Clinton-Gingrich budget showdown of 1995 as an example. Gingrich insisted on "his way or the highway." Seventeen years later, history appears to favor the highway—as more than 75 percent of registered voters now blame Republicans for the '95 shutdown. Undoubtedly, it remains critical for Republicans to demonstrate commitment to fiscal disciple. A few factors should make the 2012 negotiations a bit more palatable for the GOP. [Check out a roundup of this month's political cartoons.]

First: personality. Boehner isn't the swashbuckler Gingrich was, and Americans do not (at this point) like President Obama as much as they did Clinton in '95. In fact, Republicans could potentially use a shutdown to their advantage. Boehner is a seasoned political hand who is willing to deal, whereas a stalwart and immovable Obama risks appearing unstatesmanlike. Second: reality. Everyone despises entitlements until they become beholden to them. Tea Party lawmakers run the risk of enraging their constituents if Social Security and Medicare checks stop arriving in the mail as a result of a government shutdown. Many of these same constituents—GOP freshman lawmakers may be shocked to find—supported their campaign promises to slash government. Although a small number of the most conservative Republicans may not fear angering their constituencies, chances are that many of them are learning that governing is more difficult than campaigning. Finally: Republicans need to use President Obama's own policies against him. The White House's newly proposed budget barely mentioned his touted bipartisan fiscal commission—an endeavor on which many of the nation's greatest minds from both parties spent incalculable amounts of time and energy. [See a slide show of the GOP's rising stars.]

As the nation gears up for the 2012 election, congressional Republicans—who have their eye on the majority in the Senate—need to maintain composure without committing political suicide. Maintain the fierce commitment to fiscal issues that has become the cornerstone of the party's platform, but don't burn the house down in the effort to save one brick. As an old boss used to say:  "It's OK to give a little, try not to give in, but don't ever give up." If history is any guide, a government shutdown could reflect politically poorly on Republicans and generate more heat than light.

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