‘Tea party’ welcomes a shutdown
Capitol Hill was a stage for political theater Thursday as conservative “tea party” protesters urged Republicans to dig in their heels in budget talks with Democrats -- even in the face of a government shutdown -- and GOP leaders answered with assurances that no deals had been made.
But behind the scenes, negotiators continued to work toward a compromise that would fund the government for the rest of 2011 and avoid a cutoff of federal services before an April 8 deadline. The deal under discussion would result in cuts amounting to about half of the $61 billion in reductions passed by the Republican-led House last month.
The small-government activists who rallied outside the Capitol -- breaking into chants of “Cut it or shut it!” -- insisted that Republicans hold firm to the higher number. The activists noted the dollar figures discussed were a tiny fraction of the $3.7 trillion the government will spend this year and the $14.3 trillion national debt.
“I say pass the budget the way they promised or shut the government down,” said Michael Kicinski of Earlville, N.Y., who brought nine of his 12 children to the rally. “Cut NPR, cut Planned Parenthood, cut ‘Obamacare.’ ”
Mindful of the clamor outside, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) declared his commitment to the deeper cuts, apparently seeing no strategic gain in promoting an incomplete compromise with details still under discussion.
He told reporters that Republicans had not agreed to the tentative $33-billion compromise package and that they remained committed to the deeper cuts approved by his chamber.
But the prospects for that bill appeared grim. Already rejected by the Democratic-led Senate, it includes dozens of divisive priorities, including measures that defund Planned Parenthood and gut the Environmental Protection Agency.
Boehner said Thursday he would “continue to fight for everything that’s in it.” But key Democrats -- and one Senate Republican -- pointed to major roadblocks to that approach.
A group of House Democrats said they would not support a deal that included the anti-environmental measures. Boehner may need those Democratic votes to pass any bipartisan deal if conservatives hold out, as activists want.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), meanwhile, raised questions about the effects of the budget cuts. “A wholesale reduction in spending, without considering economic, cultural and social impacts, is simply irresponsible,” Brown wrote in a letter to Republican leaders.
There were signs that, despite vocal conservative opposition, a compromise may be near. Some Republicans in Congress appeared to be preparing to shift from the current spending battle to the larger issues ahead.
Looking to the looming 2012 budget fight, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is poised to release his spending plan next week to serve as a more comprehensive deficit reduction blueprint. The 2012 Republican budget proposal is expected to advocate deep reductions in Medicare and other entitlement programs, cuts that deficit hawks say are crucial to balancing the books.
Around the same time, the administration may ask Congress to raise the nation’s legal debt limit, a politically charged vote that several lawmakers have said they would refuse to consider unless it was coupled with far-reaching deficit reduction strategies.
“The real debate is on the ’12 budget,” said seven-term Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).
Even some freshmen, the class elected with the aid of tea party support, were edging away from the hard-line shutdown rhetoric.
“I think the sense of the freshman and the conference is, ‘Let’s get the continuing resolution behind us.’ I think there are many moments to draw lines in the sand. Our job is to be judicious,” said Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), a freshman backed by the tea party movement.
That was not the view of Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) or a handful of familiar conservative favorites who addressed the tea party crowd rallying outside the Capitol on Thursday. Pence called the ongoing spending fight a “defining moment” for Republicans and demanded they hold fast in the face of a government shutdown.
“The leverage we have right now is the fact that the government funding is running out on April 8,” he said in an interview after addressing the crowd. “Unless we achieve an agreement with the Senate and the White House, I think that’s leverage the House Republicans can and should use to make a down payment on changing the fiscal direction of our government.”
Pence and other conservatives believe the public would support a shutdown, allowing lawmakers to avoid the political backlash incurred by the last group of Republicans involved in a government closure.
The leader of that group, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was also on Capitol Hill on Thursday, advising freshmen on strategy. About half of the freshman class came to hear Gingrich, organizers said.
Julie Mianecki in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.