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The deal President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struck in early April to fund the government for the rest of fiscal year 2011 will probably make it more difficult for Republicans and Democrats to come together on two remaining issues: raising the debt ceiling to keep the United States from defaulting on its financial obligations and passing a fiscal year 2012 budget to keep the government operating beyond September 30.
Contention is the essence of democracy, and in Washington genuine civility is sometimes hard to find. But Republican freshmen in the House of Representatives have shaken the foundations of congressional decorum in ways probably unseen since the early days of the republic.
It has been an unwritten rule for as long as any of the old bulls in the House or Senate can recall that new members of Congress put in their time as silent onlookers before they gain the privilege of using the microphone. They are supposed to be seen, not heard, and they are supposed to toe the line, not charge across it.
Not so for the gang of 87 newcomers to the House who have displayed more defiance than deference, more spine than silence. They swelled the ranks of the House Republicans and gave the GOP one of its largest congressional majorities in history. And in every debate, they have confirmed their populist roots and their libertarian leanings.
They have been as effective in pushing the conservative budgetary envelope as they have been in garnering the attention of the media with their rhetorical flourishes. And having helped elect John Boehner speaker, they have made his life miserable whenever they have perceived him straying too far into the realm of compromise. Even when they have cut him some slack, they have remained an effective anchor of the conservative agenda, jerking him back to the right should he haw ever so slightly.
And so it was on the morning of April 14, as the House was preparing to vote on the budget bargain Boehner, Reid and Obama had struck five days earlier, that nearly a third of the Republican freshmen made it clear that they would oppose the speaker’s deal. Their conviction and zeal caught fire, and by noon 32 more GOP House members had joined them, making it impossible for the speaker to pass the budget bill without significant help from Democrats–humble pie under any circumstances, but especially in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the post-2010 elections.
Whether their action signals that John Boehner is in danger of losing his base and whether his leadership position is in any jeopardy, only time will tell. But without question, the budgetary contentiousness of recent weeks has been sufficiently unsettling for the speaker that he is less likely to bend during negotiations with the White House over raising the debt ceiling and adopting a budget for fiscal year 2012.
A mile and a half away down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Obama is having problems of his own with his Democratic base. Having given the House Republicans $38.5 billion of the $61 billion in cuts to non-security discretionary spending they had demanded, Obama suddenly found his left flank on the verge of revolt. They thought the president was about to concede even further ground: on environmental regulations, funding for Planned Parenthood, support for National Public Radio and use of local taxes in the District of Columbia to provide abortions, all of which Boehner & Co. opposed. And they started screaming, “Hell no!”
Where was the first African American president they had helped elect who had promised hope for the middle class and the poor? Where was the man, they wondered, who had spoken glowingly of single payer health care and the pressing need to address global warming? Where was the president who had said science, education and energy technology were his signature issues?
If the Democrat base becomes too disillusioned, the 2012 election could be a nonstarter, and Obama could well join Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush as a one-term White House resident. Polls showing Obama’s approval ratings in the 30s among white voters have not been lost on the Ivy-League-educated president. Less than a week after he had agreed to the fiscal year 2011 deal, he pivoted and began to pepper his rhetoric with populist polemics. He chided Republicans for boosting the fortunes of the rich at the expense of the middle class, and he aggressively promoted his own debt reduction plan as a middle-class counterpoint to the Republican budget resolution that had just passed the House on a party-line vote. He was drawing a metaphorical line in the sand.
I could write an entire column about who occupies the moral high ground on this issue, but that is not my purpose, at least for now. Rather, I am hoisting a warning flag about the budgetary horizon. Science dodged a nasty bullet in the fiscal year 2011 skirmish when Boehner, Reid and Obama finally struck their deal, wiping out the draconian cuts to NSF, DOE and NIST that the original House budget bill, H.R. 1, had promised. It may not be so lucky the next time around if deal making becomes an unattainable goal.
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Editor: Alan Chodos