The 112th session of Congress opened Wednesday with a speech by the newly elected Speaker of the House, John Boehner, that envisioned a session where Republicans and Democrats eschew the harsh partisan rhetoric of the past two years. As soon as the speech ended, the Republican majority adopted new new rules that riled minority Democrats and set the stage for fierce budgetary battles.
“We will welcome the battle of ideas, encourage it, engage it openly, honestly and respectfully,” said Boehner, who comes from a large working class family in Cincinnati, Ohio. He promised to “dispense with the conventional wisdom that bigger bills are always better; that fast legislating is good legislating; (and that) allowing amendments and open debate makes the legislative process less efficient.”
But the rhetoric was quickly forgotten when the ceremony ended, and the House got down to business. In its first vote, the Republican majority passed rules that kicked off what most observers predict will be months of furious partisan conflict over spending and taxes.
Boehner and the Republican majority passed what they call a “cut-go” rule, which requires that any increase in discretionary spending be matched with an equal or larger cut in other government programs. Tax cuts were exempted from the new budget neutrality rule, which under Democrats was known was “Paygo,” and allowed for tax increases to pay for new programs.
The rules package also gave extraordinary new powers to the incoming chair of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, an ideological opponent of most government spending programs. He promised to quickly hold hearings to pare back discretionary programs other than defense and homeland security to 2008 spending levels. However, Ryan dismissed news accounts that suggested the Republican House was backing away from its pledge to cut $100 billion from the budget this year. He pointed out that a quarter of this fiscal year is already past, thus lowering what is achievable.
“We’re in discretionary land now,” he told reporters after the opening session in an impromptu press conference. “It will be the appropriators’ job to tell you how they’re going to make it.”
Looming Budget Concerns
The new Congress inherits a budgetary house of cards that collapses on March 4 with expiration of the continuing resolution that allowed government spending for fiscal 2011, which began in October, to remain at 2010 levels. Not a single new appropriations bill has been passed by Congress and signed by the president.
March 4 is also about the time when the quickly mounting federal debt is projected to surpass the legal limit of $14.3 trillion, which was set last February. Those twin deadlines make high-level brinkmanship among the Republican majority in the House, and the Democratic controlled White House and Senate, inevitable. The House Republican leadership is demanding an estimated $60 billion in budget cuts for the rest of the fiscal year.
When asked if there were any conditions under which Ryan would support increasing the debt limit, he dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. That issue is “still months away,” he said.
Meanwhile, House Democrats, quickly adjusting to their new role in the minority, took aim at what they consider the hypocrisy of the new rules. “This plan guts the mandatory pay-as-you-go law that limits increases in the national debt,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who is the ranking member on the Budget Committee. “This rule opens the door to larger deficits and a larger national debt.”
The debate on the House floor quickly devolved into the hardened ideological positions that the American public has heard from both sides for the better part of three decades. “The cut-go rule will cut taxes, create jobs and there will be more revenues coming to the federal Treasury,” said David Dreier, R-Calif., the new chairman of the Rules Committee. “Paygo would bring about an increase in taxes that will stall this economic recovery.”
The new House minority whip, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, countered that Dreier’s argument was nothing more than supply-side rhetoric, which historically has paved the way for higher deficits. “We’ve heard that argument in 1981 and in 2001. The fact is it doesn’t work,” he said.
Democrats plan to highlight what they claim will be the deficit consequences of repealing health care reform, a major plank in the new majority’s platform. A vote on repeal could come in an up-or-down vote as early as next week. The Republicans won’t be holding hearings before the repeal vote, which Democrats argue is an immediate violation of Boehner’s pledge to allow ample time for committee debate and amendments.
It is also still possible that the Congressional Budget Office will weigh in with its analysis. If CBO sticks by its previous numbers, which were issued just prior to the Affordable Care Act’s passage, the report will show that repeal will increase the federal deficit by $143 billion over the next 10 years. Republicans say CBO’s analysis is wrong, and consider the legislation a trillion dollar spending program.
While both sides seemed eager for partisan combat, there were some signs of bipartisanship on the House floor. At least 11 Blue Dog Democrats voted for Rep. Heath Shuler, a conservative North Carolina Democrat, for House Speaker instead of Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, whose name was offered in token opposition to Boehner. That suggests there may be some crossing of partisan lines on some votes as the session of Congress moves on, unlike the last one where Republicans voted in lockstep against almost every major Democratic initiative.
And in a poignant moment, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, whose political career began during the lunch counter civil rights sit-ins of the early 1960s, crossed the aisle to shake hands with Allen West, the Tea Party-backed Floridian who is one of two black Republicans in the new Congress. Though West grew up in Lewis’ district and his parents were long-time supporters of the civil rights warrior, Lewis traveled to Florida to campaign against the black conservative.
“He told me he was glad to see me and he was looking forward to working with me,” West said during a break in the afternoon session.