How Speaker Boehner brought a recalcitrant tea party to the budget deal

The budget deal marks the debut of an 87-member GOP freshman class committed to deep spending cuts. Speaker John Boehner defied his critics to rally his caucus and produce an agreement, without shutting down government.

At the Capitol late Friday night, House Speaker John Boehner announces a deal to avert a US government shutdown saying he secured big cuts in government spending.

Nearly half an hour after a midnight deadline expired, Congress passed a stop-gap measure to fund the federal government through Thursday, avoiding a government shutdown and paving the way for historic spending cuts.

The bipartisan agreement knocks $78.5 billion off President Obama’s FY 2011 budget request and cuts current levels of spending by $37.7 billion – a reversal of historic trends. It also includes some controversial policy riders demanded by House Republicans, including a ban on the use of local tax dollars in the District of Columbia to fund abortions and reestablishing a DC school voucher program that helps low-income students attend private schools.

“Some of the cuts we agreed to will be painful,” said President Obama, speaking from the White House Friday night. “Programs people rely on will be cut back. Needed infrastructure projects will be delayed. And I would not have made these cuts in better circumstances…. We protected the investments we need to win the future.”

The deal marks the debut in Washington of an 87-member GOP freshman class committed to deep spending cuts – and a test of whether Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio could manage the new GOP majority without grinding government to a halt.

The strain of negotiations showed on the faces of House and Senate leaders and staff, who worked through differences that seemed insurmountable.

"It has been a grueling process," said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, speaking from the House floor late Friday night. "We didn't do it at this late hour for the drama. We did it because it has been very hard to arrive at this point."

Over weeks of intense negotiation, Senate Democrats moved from a position of proposing zero spending cuts to agreeing to nearly $38 billion. House Republicans campaigned in 2010 to cut spending $100 billion below the president’s FY 2011 request. They settled for $78.5 billion. The projected deficit for FY 2011 is $1.65 trillion.

Winding up a spending bill for the last six months of FY 2011 was supposed to be the easy negotiation, compared with tough issues to come: a budget for FY 2012 and a toxic vote to raise the national debt ceiling.

Instead, talks between House and Senate leaders – and more recently, the White House – proved tough and protracted. The goal posts shifted. Differences narrowing one hour split wide open the next.

Boehner a hostage to GOP "extremists"?

Senate Democrats blamed House GOP tea party freshmen. Speaker Boehner was a hostage of “extremists” in his own ranks, the narrative ran. A likeable man, he deserved pity, they said.

Tea party freshmen blamed the Senate. Majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada never engaged the House over FY 2011 spending, they said. Aside from a perfunctory up-or-down vote on a House bill that cut $61.5 billion in spending, the Senate failed to produce a bill of its own. As a result, conservatives said, there was nothing to negotiate.

But Boehner defied his critics to both rally his caucus and produce an agreement, without shutting down government.

“We fought to keep government spending down, because it really will affect and create a better environment for job creators in our country,” he said at a press briefing after a meeting with his GOP caucus in the Capitol late Friday night.

At the start of the 112th Congress, Boehner opted to open the process. Asked how he planned to control a fired-up freshmen class, which at 87 accounted for nearly a third of the Republican majority, Boehner said he did not want to control them, but rather let the House work its will, letting the chips fall as they may.

Dealing with the tea party

“The tea party folks really believe in democracy and the Speaker decided to give them some,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “It was a smart approach. He had to understand not only what they wanted by way of policy but what they wanted by way of process.”

“Boehner achieved much of his substantive policy objectives, but he also gained a great deal of stature,” he adds. “This was his battlefield commission – his first big confrontation as Speaker, and he came out well.”

In a sharp break with the practice of recent Speakers, Boehner allowed open debate on spending bills, including some 580 amendments of the FY 2011 spending bill.

He and his leadership team maintained regular listening sessions with caucus members, especially the freshmen. Consistently, he told the caucus that he would fight for as deep cuts in FY 2011 spending as possible. Many conservatives called for holding out at least for the $61.5 billion in the House-passed version of the bill. Some called for even deeper cuts – and urged a shutdown to win them.

As negotiations intensified with the Senate over spending, Boehner also told the caucus that Republicans would lose in the case of a government shutdown, as they had in the faceoff with President Clinton in 1995.

Over time, his case for compromise began to take hold. On March 15, 54 conservative Republicans broke with leadership to oppose a stop-gap spending measure, on the grounds that a shutdown was preferable to protracted negotiations. Over time, Boehner’s case for restraint gained ground in the caucus. On April 7, 48 of the 54 reversed course to back Boehner’s call for another continuing resolution.

“There has been attrition. The freshmen are just tired,” said Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, a tea party leader. “These are people who used to stand on principle just two weeks ago.”

Government shutdown loomed

“The information that comes down through the [Boehner] team is that we would lose in the case of a government shutdown,” he adds. “It’s an axiom that can’t be challenged.”

Other tea party leaders took a more conciliatory line.

“We want to get the best deal we can. We want the Speaker to be empowered,” said tea party caucus founder Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, before the deal on Friday.

The final agreement, to be put into legislative language for final passage by Thursday, sets discretionary spending for the balance of the fiscal year at $1.049 trillion.

It includes policy riders that ban the use of funds for the transfer of prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention center to the United States mainland. It drops Republican policy riders that would have banned funding for health care reform, National Public Radio, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gases.

In a compromise, it calls the Senate to take up votes on defunding the implementation of President Obama’s health care reform and funding for Planned Parenthood.

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