There Will Be Cuts
How Republicans are winning the debate over the federal budget.
If you want to get a rise out of a congressional Republican, ask him whether he thinks the budget debate will end in a government shutdown. Go ahead. Ask.
"The only people talking about shutdown are media and Democrats," said an exasperated Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., in a scrum with reporters this week. "I find that very interesting. Oh—them, and also Wisconsin state senate Democrats."
On the other side of the Hill, Republicans say the same thing. Freshman Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., responded to the question by describing how it came up at a town-hall meeting in his district. "Even in that audience," he said, "which was made up of a lot of moderates from my district—even they were willing to admit that whenever they turned on their televisions and heard somebody talking about a shutdown, the somebody was a Democrat."
It's unanimous: The shutdown talk is a Democratic distraction tactic. Republicans don't want to shut the government down, no matter what some of their more battle-ready members said before the election, or as late as last week.
This is not just the GOP's line. It also has the benefit of being true. The party is getting most of what it wants right now by taking advantage of the existential dread of a government shutdown and of the Democrats' failure, in 2010, actually to pass a budget. They're not getting everything they want, but in conversations this week, Republicans suggested that they could get most of it without shutting down anything.
"I think the ability to finish out a CR from here to September is important," said freshman Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. "But if the Senate's not willing to cut spending, and if it's only willing to cut spending two weeks at a time, then so be it."
Gardner quickly pondered his choice of words, which got Speaker of the House John Boehner in trouble, albeit on a different issue. "I'd rather not say, 'So be it,' " he said. "Those words seem to have taken on a life of their own."
He was just being honest. The fear of a shutdown was telegraphed so long in advance that it lost its ability to scare, like some 3-D sequel to Jaws. The point of a possible shutdown, as some Republicans first discussed it, was to force the Obama administration to accept spending cuts. When Newt Gingrich floated the possibility of a shutdown 11 months ago at an appearance at the Heritage Foundation, he said the 1995-96 government shutdown had actually gone the GOP's way and led to a balanced budget.
There's no balanced budget on the horizon right now. What Republicans want are cuts— the biggest cuts they can possibly get. They have figured out that they can get sizable cuts by running right up to the line of crisis, then getting continuing resolutions passed.
That was what happened this week. Republicans had offered a two-week continuing resolution that funded the government while cutting $4 billion from discretionary spending—education, transportation, health and human services, the usual suspects. And it passed. Republicans aren't saying that weeks and weeks of short-term continuing resolutions are ideal—nobody thinks this—but the resolutions are a way to get what they want despite controlling only one chamber of Congress.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.