WASHINGTON – Less than three months into a tea party-flavored Congress, federal budget cuts amount to $10 billion. Government shutdowns total zero.
That translates into twin early triumphs for Republicans, who are determined to reduce spending and have so far defied attempts by congressional Democrats to cast them as an uncontrollable rabble that would just as soon shutter the government as downsize it.
"We've made it clear that a government shutdown is not an option — period," GOP Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, said recently as the House was voting to cut $6 billion of the $10 billion while keeping the government running through April 8.
The rhetorical threat of a shutdown is a recurring one, put to differing uses by various interests in the struggle over the size and scope of the government. As Congress returns this week from a break, that threat hangs over negotiations on legislation to enact tens of billions and keep the government running through the Sept. 30 end of the current budget year.
"If the government were to shut down, I don't think it's because we asked for too much," Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., said recently, neither advocating a shutdown nor ruling one out.
Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich counseled fellow Republicans on the subject over the winter. "Becoming one more promise-breaking, Washington-dominated, sellout group is a much worse fate — politically and ethically — than having the government close for a few days," he wrote in The Washington Post. As House speaker in the mid-1990s, he led the party into two shutdowns that boomeranged politically, helping President Bill Clinton win re-election and damaging the GOP. Now he's a presidential hopeful and seeks the support of tea party activists.
The current speaker, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, says he wants no part of such talk. But Democrats seize on shutdown-related comments as they work to deflect attention from their own inability to unify on spending cuts, an issue of immense importance to the voters at a time the deficit is over $1.5 trillion and the federal debt exceeds $14 trillion.
"It's clear that there is no path to compromise that goes through the tea party," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., before Congress began its break. "We urge Speaker Boehner to push ahead without them. We are ready to work with him if he is willing to buck the extreme element of his party."
Schumer spoke after the most recent temporary spending bill passed the House, and to underscore his point, he noted that 54 Republicans voted against the measure. Left unsaid was that 66 of the 87 first-term GOP lawmakers voted for it, along with 85 Democrats, a strong bipartisan showing.
Among Senate Democrats, liberals generally want less in the way of cuts than do the moderates, several of whom face potentially difficult races in 2012.
"There are way too many people in denial around here about the nature of the (deficit) problem and how serious it is," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who will face the voters in a state that Obama lost in 2008.
The difference in perspective is explained in polling shown privately to Democratic senators over the winter. In a survey by GarinHartYang, a Democratic firm, 63 percent of Democrats polled said their No. 1 priority for improving the economy was government spending to create jobs and help the United States compete globally. By contrast, 28 percent preferred reducing the deficit through spending cuts.
When independent voters were asked the same question, 50 percent favored cuts to reduce the deficit while only 39 percent backed government spending to create jobs. Obama has called for both.
The report also said that when it comes to re-electing senators, "voters have bigger concerns about not doing enough about the deficit than about going too far." The margin was 48-41 among independents, and 50-40 overall. The survey results were obtained by The Associated Press.
Beyond the obvious appeal to Republican party activists, it's unclear whether the shutdown talk within the party is designed to throw the Democrats off balance or perhaps warn Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership to hold firm in the current negotiations.
In those talks, the initial bargaining positions are clear.
The House has voted for $61 billion in cuts. Senate Democrats haven't agreed publicly to anything more than the $10 billion already enacted. In private negotiations joined by the White House, according to officials familiar with the secretive talks, all sides have acknowledged they must move off their initial figures. Boehner also is defending a series of contentious nonspending provisions that passed the House. Some of those may be acceptable to the White House, but nothing that neuters the year-old health care law or bans Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funds.
So far, though, the real surprise is not how hard it's been to cut spending, but how easy.
The $10 billion total so far was drawn from administration recommendations. There was little Democratic criticism, and Republicans pocketed them gladly, each time calling for more.
The White House wants more, too, as Obama looks ahead to his 2012 re-election campaign.
"We can agree to additional savings and we want to look and find the savings that we can all agree on," says his budget director, Jack Lew. "It's going to be somewhere in the middle."
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo is AP's chief congressional correspondent.
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