Federal budget showdown: Both Democrats and Republicans need to control their members.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 16 2011 7:33 PM

Don't Make Me Pull This Car Over

To pass a budget this year, both Democrats and Republicans are going to have to rein in their more unruly members.

Chuck Schumer. Click image to expand.
Chuck Schumer

Sen. Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor today to throw a drowning man an anvil. In order to avoid a government shutdown, Schumer advised House Speaker John Boehner to abandon Tea Party-backed Republicans and their inflexible requests to cut the budget for 2011 by $61 billion.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Political motivations aside—Schumer's advice was meant to make Boehner's job harder, not easier—Schumer has a point. Boehner does have a Tea Party problem. In the most recent vote to continue funding government operations, 54 House Republicans voted against their leadership. Of course, a week ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw 10 Democrats vote against President Obama's proposal for spending reductions.

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Schumer's speech was an effort to make the GOP look like the party in chaos. But both parties are unsettled. One thing we'll learn from the remaining fight over the 2011 budget is which party is better at handling its problem children.

Boehner lost 22 percent of his caucus in Tuesday's vote. What does that mean? Nothing at the moment. The opposition to the second continuing resolution, which funds government operations until April 8, didn't imperil the underlying vote. That means some of the 54 representatives were free to vote against it—to get attention from their leadership or, more likely, to send a signal to their constituents about their anti-spending rigor.

That was also the case when 39 House Democrats voted against Obama's health care plan last year and when more than 100 voted against his requests for funding for the war. Democrats argued at the time the defections were a sign of a broad majority—members could vote in ways their constituents demanded, but the larger goals of the party were not imperiled.

Still, the question remains: How many members are there in the shutdown caucus in the House? The White House, Democratic Senate staffers and representatives from the speaker's office have been negotiating for weeks in quasi-secret on a final number of spending cuts. When a deal is announced and John Boehner tries to sell that to his caucus, how many members would rather shut down the government than compromise on the amount of spending reductions for this year?

The number isn't 54. But it's not 20, either. There are two issues: Republicans who won't vote for a final bill unless it contains "riders" related to health care, abortion, and funding for the EPA; and those who think anything less than the $61 billion in cuts is too little. One House leadership source put this number at 25. The number is no doubt more. The pitch to convince the hard cases is that a government shutdown would be too damaging to the party and an awful way to start the new GOP control of the House—and that there are more episodes of this budget fight to come in which additional concessions can be won. Boehner can lose only so many votes before he starts needing votes from conservative Democrats.

Schumer is trying to make Boehner look like a captive to his most ideological members. The Tea Party is not popular nationally. Also, by focusing on the "riders," Democrats seek to reframe the GOP from being a party taking a hard line to improve the economy to being a party obsessed with ideological fights outside the economy.

This does put some pressure on the House GOP. Boehner and House leadership don't want to look as if they are ruled by these members or as if they're not focused on the economy. If the House GOP wants to signal to the nation that the adults are in charge, it cannot look like the party that is ruled by Michele Bachmann.

In the Senate there are also signs of dysfunction. Ten Senate Democrats voted against the White House measure to reduce spending in the remainder of this fiscal year by $6.5 billion. They said that wasn't enough. (An 11th, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, voted against the cuts because they are too much.) In his Tea Party warning, Schumer cited a few press accounts of conservatives who said the Republican leadership was being too timid in budget negotiations. None of it was as bold as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's remarks about Obama, delivered on the Senate floor. He accused Obama of failing to lead  on cutting spending to reduce the deficit, a key charge in the GOP playbook.

Other Democrats in the Senate are pushing from the other side. They are desperate for the president to engage in a fight with Republicans over these big cuts, and he won't. The signs of discord are big and small. Obama warned members of Congress not to throw around loose talk about a government shutdown. Schumer used the term nine times in his remarks.

Still, Reid will have an easier time getting enough of his members to rally around a compromise set of cuts than John Boehner will. The moderate 10 who said the president's initial cuts were too small will almost certainly rally around the deal that comes out of negotiations because it will contain sufficient cuts. A few liberals might leave because the cuts are too big, but if the compromise deal worked out over the next three weeks is one that is worked out with Republicans, there will be a majority made up of both parties for the final vote. 

If Schumer's gambit works, Boehner and other Republican leaders will accept a compromise that is closer to what Democrats want for fear of being seen as captive to their most extreme members. In doing so, they will anger the party's Tea Party base, which is good for Democrats who like to see their opponents squabble. Boehner's escape route is to argue that Democratic leaders aren't serious about cutting spending, which is why some members of their own party are going against them. In this game of chicken, to avoid a crackup each side will first have to stop the fight in its front seat.

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