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Roll Call

Conservatives Surprise on CR

How the Right Came to Warn Against a Standoff

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

In a surprising contrast from their hard-line stances during the spending and debt ceiling standoffs earlier this Congress, conservative Republicans, led by Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), became the leading voice for punting on a would-be standoff on fiscal 2013 spending.

Their endorsement helped propel a drama-free spending deal announced Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at levels higher than preferred by the right.

But for conservatives, rather than a recognition that spending standoffs are wrongheaded, the move was instead a vote of no confidence that their own leadership had the backbone — or the wherewithal — to wage such a fight so close to the elections.

“We tried our fights last year with funding, to try to cut off funding, cut funding. Cut, Cap and Balance was designed to draw the line on the whole debt ceiling debate. And we were all willing to go to the wall on that. We just did not have enough support here in our own party,” DeMint said.

As conservatives, who convened an informal working group in June, pestered GOP leaders about what their plan was for the fall, they were told to wait until then, when it would be unveiled, a GOP aide said.

Finding the answer unsatisfactory, the group decided punting was the best option, given the circumstances.

DeMint said the debt ceiling standoff hurt Republicans politically “because we didn’t follow through” and that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney could have been badly wounded by another round with the same dynamics at work.

The reasoning shows that, even amid a recent outcry by Republican moderates demanding a new willingness to compromise, the right flank of the GOP remains unhappy over the deals that were struck and are eager for a harder stance.

But whether Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would hold firm was hardly the only consideration.

The conservatives also factored in a host of other criteria that convinced them they would be playing with a stacked deck for winnings that weren’t worth the ante.

“None of us like the Budget Control Act, none of us like those limits, they’re not enough. We realized there’s nothing we could really get passed better than that here,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said.

“Somehow, we seem to lose those debates in the press,” he added.

They were also worried about adding uncertainty to the economy.

“[The] time to pick a fight on a government shutdown is not now. Our country’s under a cloud of uncertainty. People are losing their jobs. For Congress and the president, who’s been completely irresponsible, for us to have a showdown over a shutdown in September, it was just completely irresponsible,” DeMint said.

“From my standpoint, I thought that’s what the American economy needed,” Johnson said.

Conservatives also considered the continuing resolution fight in the context of the lame-duck session, when Congress will look to address a number of big-ticket items, such as the sequester and the expiring 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

“A funding fight at that time would have added fuel to the fire during a session of Congress where lawmakers whom the American people voted out of office could push for tax increases, continued out-of-control spending and a continuation of harmful policies that breed dependency on government,” Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action for America, said in a statement supporting the CR deal.

The deal struck during the debt ceiling standoff has also not worn well over time. After the super committee failed to strike a deal and as steep cuts from sequestration get closer, many Republicans have expressed their displeasure, in retrospect, with the terms of the deal.

The thinking goes that with government funding off the table, the lame duck will be a game of chicken over who is willing to let taxes go up and/or see defense and domestic spending programs cut in order to make their broader ideological points about the nation’s fiscal policy.

DeMint and others did offer a word of caution heading into the recess that their support was contingent on terms announced by Reid — a “clean” CR without extraneous legislation tacked on.

Conservatives are concerned that as the actual legislation is crafted in August, it could become a tempting vehicle for additional bills to be added, something that would scuttle their support.

The vote will be delayed until after recess to allow time for it to be drafted and evaluated.

Aides said the Congressional Budget Office will need time to score the proposal. In addition, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget will need to provide Appropriations Committee staffers with lists of changes from the current spending levels — called “anomalies” — for inclusion in the measure.

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