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The Strategy of Short-Term CR Opponents: A Response to Keith Hennessey

Keith Hennessey critiqued opponents of the short-term CR making the case that our intransience is hurting the cause. It has been endlessly forwarded around to conservatives since yesterday. Keith argues that the short-term strategy is better because it allows the spending cut coalition to avoid the pitfalls of a public shutdown fight.

He argues that conservatives who disagree either have no strategic plan and/or want to reward themselves individually or merely play to their conservative base. Keith then argues that such conservative discontent should be channeled to “ratchet up the spending cuts in the next CR” or to “choose one funding limitation and insist that it be included.” But the gist is that conservative opponents don’t have “a complete and viable alternative strategy,” and thus instead of discarding the short-term game, it’s better to just add to the list of demands.

I respect Keith a lot. When I was cutting my teeth as a legislative aide in the Senate, Keith was one of the big dogs, and then went on to bigger and better things in the Bush White House. However, I think these arguments—because of their prevalence in Leadership and establishment circles—need to be unpacked and responded to. Read on.

FIRST, our viable alternative strategy is to force Senate Democrats to pass a bill. Currently, the very willingness of Republicans to do the short-terms absolves both Senate Democrats and the President of any responsibility. The House acted. It passed H.R. 1. The Senate has not. Harry Reid has essentially thrown up his hands and said that he can’t pass anything (notwithstanding the fact that he claims to run the Senate). We all know that he can pass something. Until the Senate passes legislation, real Congressional negotiations cannot begin. Not unlike their Wisconsin state colleagues, Democrats must participate to have a say. Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, and Chuck Schumer are not, and the short-term strategy is letting them get away with it. Furthermore, it’s letting the White House get away with staying above the fray. Keith thinks this is a good thing, but why? Obama has an advantage for sure, but this debate is not a foregone conclusion, and conservatives operating on principle have bested Obama repeatedly since he has been President.

SECOND, Republicans can and must message the following argument:

a) Democrats controlled both the Presidency and the Congress and were unable to pass a budget, leaving a portion of the responsibility to Republicans.

b) House Republicans passed H.R. 1 to fully fund the government, make a down-payment of a mere $61 billion in cuts in the face of a $1.5 trillion deficit, and limit some of the main excesses of the current federal government (Planned Parenthood, EPA, Obamacare, etc.).

c) Democrats have not responded. The Democrat Senate Majority refuses to pass not just the right bill, but any bill. And the White House sent their chief negotiator to Europe and is spending more time filling out their NCAA brackets then getting serious about their shared responsibility to fund the government. Who is unserious here?

Can we be successful in making this argument while Obama has the bully pulpit? Well, what arguments have we failed to win against the Obama bully pulpit in the last two plus years? Think of the big fights that we have had with Obama—stimulus, cap-and-trade, his budgets, and of course, Obamacare. He had the bully pulpit. We won the argument. It takes message discipline, but it can be done.

THIRD, Keith is overselling the current strategy as a “complete and viable” strategy. He states that Democrats are more afraid of a shutdown than Republicans. That is simply not true. Sure, Democrats don’t want to shut the government down over $4-6 billion in cuts because they know they can’t sell that to anyone, especially when many of the cuts were proposed by their President. However, Senators Durbin and Schumer are all but rooting for a shutdown, while Congressional Republicans are petrified of that prospect.

The mere fact that no new riders were attached to the current three-week CR is evidence of that fear. For example, House Republicans had considered re-instating the Dornan Amendment (not exactly a “new” rider, I know) to bar federal and local DC funds from being used to fund abortions, as included in H.R. 1. President Obama previously signed legislation that included this rider before Democrats weakened the language in the last appropriations cycle. Republicans removed it because they were worried about giving the Democrats an opportunity to claim they were attempting to jam thru a “policy” agenda, using deficit concerns as a pretext. Simply put, the party that quakes at the thought of a shutdown has the least amount of leverage, thus Democrats have the most until Republicans find a spine. This weakness will not be on display on this three-week extension, but it will be when Republicans start packaging substantial cuts that Democrats refuse to accept. Part of the strategic reason to oppose short-terms is to regain the leverage in this fight, and to do that, you simply must be prepared to shut the government down. Not rooting for it, but prepared for it. Diplomacy without the threat of military force does not work.

FOURTH, our strategy will lead to more cuts and more riders. Currently, the short-terms are not securing any riders. Even Keith’s suggestion of attaching an EPA rider can’t happen on an upcoming short-term, because the fear of a shutdown has reduced their leverage to demand it. What about more cuts than the $2 billion per week that each short-term seem to contain? It’s important to remember a few things here. Some of these cuts are illusory. For instance, in the current short-term, of the $6 billion in cuts, $1.7 billion was to rescind excess money that was not used for the census and was not going to be spent. That is not a real cut. Others were proposed by Democrats. In addition, with every short-term extension, it makes it harder to get the full cuts that remain because there are less remaining weeks to absorb whatever haircut is being demanded. Remember when House Leadership was saying that they couldn’t cut more because they had to “pro-rate” the $100 billion for seven months? It wasn’t much of an argument at the time, but with every new short-term it is more credible.

Most importantly, as Keith points out, conservatives have exactly three leverage points to demand concessions from Democrats over the next year: a long-term FY11 CR, a debt limit increase, and the FY12 appropriations bills. Already this three-week extension will expire on April 8, the same week that Rep. Paul Ryan is unveiling his FY12 budget. The other side knows that they are best served by one big grand bargain—thus their “rope-a-dope” strategy. Conservatives need to understand they will get more concessions by keeping these three opportunities separate. That maximizes our leverage for more cuts and limited government riders.

FIFTH, it’s important to remember that most opponents of the CR have both principled and strategic reasons for their position. When you go out and promise voters that you are going to dismantle and defund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, and then you exclude these issues from the negotiations on the first must-pass bill, then you’re not being very principled. Also, pretending that these short-term opponents do not have a political strategy or an endgame is simply to ignore the arguments we continue to make.

All of this requires Republicans to act and talk as if they understand the seriousness of our fiscal crisis. $2 billion here, $6 billion there does not accomplish that. They need to restore leverage to the negotiations with a willingness, but not a desire to shut the government down. They need to win the daily argument for why Democrats are fundamentally unserious about cutting spending and have chosen to repeatedly run out the clock instead. They can’t do that with the present strategy.

Republicans need to dig deep and embrace the sort of brinksmanship that shows they are playing to win.

Crossposted at Heritage Action for America

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