Picking the right fiscal fight

Washington's prolonged fight over the current fiscal year's budget seemed to be wrapping up last week when negotiators for the House, Senate and Obama administration reportedly agreed in principle to cut spending by $33 billion — about as much as leaders of the Republican-controlled House initially sought. Then Republicans aligned with the "tea party" movement threatened to scuttle the compromise, demanding the full $61 billion in cuts that they'd pushed through the House in February. One tea party group even pledged to challenge House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the GOP primary next year if he strikes a deal that doesn't cut enough spending.

The dissidents don't seem to realize that conservatives have already won the argument with liberals on one important level. The Democrats who control the Senate and the White House had insisted that the economic recovery wasn't strong enough to withstand any loss of federal dollars. Now they're just dickering over the magnitude of the cuts and the details. That concession opened the door to a deal, but the split in the House GOP caucus threatens to close it. Not only are some lawmakers in the tea party wing demanding larger cuts, they're also insisting on the rollbacks the House proposed on healthcare reform, abortion, public broadcasting and environmental protection. Few, if any, of those riders have the votes to pass the Senate, let alone override a veto.

At a tea party event outside the Capitol on Thursday, speakers exhorted lawmakers to stand firm for the full amount of cuts and restrictions even if meant shutting down the government after the current stop-gap funding bill runs out April 8. Fortunately for all concerned, the House GOP leadership hasn't been willing to forsake the kind of compromise that divided government — and a citizenry with differing priorities — necessitate.

Besides, lawmakers concerned about deficit spending and the country's fiscal health have bigger fish to fry. On Tuesday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) plans to lay out his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins in October. Unlike the timid deficit-reduction steps President Obama included in his blueprint for fiscal 2012, Ryan's proposal is expected to take a whack at one of the main sources of Washington's fiscal problems: healthcare entitlements. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of six senators is trying to devise a multiyear plan for eliminating the deficit before the national debt becomes unsustainable.

These efforts will shine a spotlight on the tough choices Congress has to make about Medicaid, Medicare, the Pentagon and taxes if lawmakers hope to solve Washington's long-term fiscal problems. By contrast, the spending tussle that has occupied so much of Congress' attention this year concerns only non-security discretionary spending, whose share of the budget — 13% — is already set to shrink. If they're really serious about the deficit, lawmakers from both parties will embrace the compromise that's emerging on the short-term spending bill and get on with the real work.

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