Deal in Hand, Boehner Emerges Stronger From Budget Standoff

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Tears of a savvy negotiator. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

House Republicans, Senate Democrats, and the White House reached a budget agreement on Friday night, 90 minutes before a deadline that would have shut down the government. House Speaker John Boehner managed to secure $38 billion in spending cuts, even more than his own original $32 billion proposal. This was the first big test of Boehner's ability to hold his coalition of tea party freshmen and more moderate GOP veterans together — as New York's John Heilemann put it earlier this week, "At this moment, it must kinda blow to be John Boehner" — and he proved himself as a master tactician and negotiator.

"In the end, the real negotiation was not between the Republicans and the Democrats, or even the Republicans and the White House. It was between John Boehner and the conservative wing of his party," Ezra Klein wrote for the Washington Post. "He managed to get more from the Democrats than anyone had expected, sell his members on voting for a deal that wasn’t what many of them wanted and avert a shutdown."

President Obama headed off cuts to Planned Parenthood (although the final deal does include restrictions on abortion funding in D.C., according to Boehner), and prevented a shutdown that would have furloughed millions of government workers, shut down parks and passport offices, and delayed paychecks to the military. But Obama had initially proposed increasing spending by $40 billion, and he gave Boehner a better deal than the speaker initially asked for without ever making the case against cuts. Can Obama claim a victory for keeping the government running? As Slate's Dave Weigel put it, "If the Republicans would have been blamed for a shutdown, it follows that they get credit for a shutdown being avoided."

Because it will take time to actually draft the budget legislation, the House and Senate passed a temporary stopgap measure that keeps the federal government funded through Thursday, when Congress will hold a full vote on the budget agreement.

The Wall Street Journal has the best account of behind-the-scenes machinations, revealing that "early Friday with just hours to go before a government shutdown, [the deal] unraveled, prompting President Barack Obama to admonish Mr. Boehner by phone, aides to both men said." The Journal says the turning point in the budget wars occurred on Wednesday, when the awesome rhetorical power of Boehner's leaky tear ducts helped sway the Republican Caucus:


House Speaker John Boehner laid out his strategy for budget talks with the White House. As rank-and-file members expressed their support, Mr. Boehner teared up, and the room erupted in a standing ovation. That moment, three days before the government was scheduled to shut down, helped turn the tide toward a deal after a tumultuous three weeks of drama. The backing of Mr. Boehner's restive caucus, whose commitment to an agreement had been uncertain, sent the speaker a message that Republican lawmakers trusted him to cut a deal.

In a short speech after the deal was reached, Obama tried to frame the budget deal as an victory for bipartisanship. Plus, it made some eighth graders very happy:


A few days ago, I received a letter from a mother in Longmont, Colorado. Over the year, her son's eighth-grade class saved up money and worked on projects so that next week they could take a class trip to Washington DC ... She asked those of us in Washington to get past our petty grievances and make things right."

The class trip was saved, but in the cold light of day, it's hard to see this as a win for Obama. Democrats can point to hard bargaining on exactly where the cuts will come from ($3 billion in Pentagon savings show that defense spending is not exempt, for example), but by agreeing to austerity measures during an economic turnaround, Obama may have hurt his reelection chances — lower government spending will hurt job growth, and if unemployment stays above 8 percent, the President faces a tough battle in 2012.

He also positioned himself poorly for the much bigger fight to come over next year's budget, which includes Representative Paul Ryan's proposals to reshape Medicare and Medicaid. In touting the cuts in this deal as a triumph, Obama essentially capitulated to the GOP's policy agenda. As the Guardian's Michael Tomasky wrote: "During this whole process, he never once that I can remember made a forceful public statement singling out a GOP cut as severe or unwise, never defended family planning initiatives, never pointed to one thing and said, this I will not brook."

Behind the Scenes, Angry Meetings, Several Near Deals [WSJ]
2011 Is Not 1995 [WP]
The No-Shutdown Wrap [Slate]
No government shutdown, but what do we have instead? [Guardian UK]