For Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the fight over current spending levels was always about the bigger debates still to come.
Since November’s election, conservatives have been bullish, perhaps too bullish, on their prospects of making wholesale changes to the federal government and spending levels. With Democrats still in control of the Senate and the White House, Boehner, the seasoned legislator, understood that much of what his eager conservative base expected wasn’t possible, or might only be achieved through the most incremental of steps.
By engaging in a protracted, often ugly partisan fight with Democrats, Boehner not only demonstrated to his Conference his commitment to spending cuts and showed his zeal for imposing conservative policies on the Obama administration, he illustrated with textbook clarity just how difficult it will be to implement a conservative agenda.
When Boehner presented his Conference with a compromise spending bill late Friday night, Republicans largely hailed it as a success and lauded Boehner’s ability to force Democrats and the Obama administration into a historic discussion of how to cut spending.
The agreement Boehner was able to cut is impressive — in addition to cutting spending by a total of $38.5 billion this year, he was able to force Democrats to accept a number of policy riders they had opposed.
But the agreement’s significance for Boehner has less to do with the immediate fight over cutting this year’s spending and more to do with how he manages his Conference over the next few months. Just ahead are momentous debates and votes on raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget for fiscal 2012. Boehner’s handling of the continuing resolution negotiation is now the platform he’ll use to lead his party on those issues.
“It will help him,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who will be one of Boehner’s chief lieutenants in marshaling support for the budget and the debt limit and whose job as a whip could have been immeasurably complicated had Boehner failed in the spending fight.
Freshman Rep. Michael Grimm explained that Boehner not only demonstrated to his Conference a willingness to fight with Democrats, but also showed some in the Conference that the spending dispute is only the first step in a broader fight.
“I absolutely think it will help. ... I think the Speaker did a great job,” the New York Republican said, adding that Boehner’s gains were significant considering “we control only one-half of one-third of the government.”
Grimm and others said that lesson, and the goodwill within his Conference that Boehner built, should serve him well in the future, particularly during the debate on the debt limit. Although conservatives have strongly opposed an increase, the practical reality is that the debt ceiling will need to be raised this year or the government will risk defaulting on its loans, which is likely to have significant implications for the economy. House Republicans are widely expected to tie the debt limit increase to mandatory spending reductions over the long term.
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