The Republicans set the terms of the debate at every point, and learned that they can push the fumbling and fearful Democrats far to the right. Within hours, they began revving up to create the next crisis.
Although much of the final deal has not yet been made public, it is clear it could have been far worse. The White House refused to accept many of the most radical cuts in the original House bill, including deep reductions to Head Start, AmeriCorps, Pell grants, public broadcasting and competitive education programs. Financial and health care reform will continue but with reduced money. The worst right-wing demands were dropped, including a cutoff of funds to providers of abortion and family planning, and an end to regulation of greenhouse gases. And nearly half the cuts came from a side of the budget that will do less harm to the economy and the most vulnerable.
Nonetheless, the Republicans did far better than they could possibly have imagined when the process began, winning $38.5 billion in cuts, more than even the House leadership had proposed. That’s on top of the $40 billion in additional spending that President Obama had originally proposed for this fiscal year, which was dropped. About $13 billion will be cut from the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. The State Department and foreign assistance will lose $8 billion.
Key investments in roads, rails and other vital public works will again have to wait, and because these cuts will change the spending baseline for future budgets, may never be restored to their proper levels. (Defense spending will go up by only $5 billion over the next six months, not the $7 billion Republicans wanted.)
Democrats also agreed to the ideological demand of House conservatives that the District of Columbia be banned from spending any money for abortions, a cruel blow to the poor and largely African-American women who need those services. The ban was lifted in 2009.
The worst aspect of the deal, however, was the momentum it gave to Republicans who have hoodwinked many Americans into believing that short-term cuts in spending will be good for the economy. After the agreement was reached, President Obama actually patted himself on the back for agreeing to the “largest annual spending cut in our history.”
He should have used the moment to explain to Americans what irresponsible cuts the G.O.P. demanded just to keep the government open. Now, having won the philosophical terms of this debate, the House is eagerly anticipating the next and far more serious showdown: the need to raise the federal debt ceiling by May 16.
If it is not raised, the government will go into default, which could have a disastrous effect on the credit markets and the economy. House Speaker John Boehner said after the budget deal that there was “not a chance” the Republicans, who like to pretend they are the fiscally responsible party, would agree to raise the ceiling “without something really, really big attached to it.” He may be pandering to his Tea Party members, but the threat is real.
Mr. Obama will speak this week about a plan to reduce the long-term deficit, and aides are already making it clear he will finally demand that taxes for the rich must go up. The fight next time will be rougher and the principles need to be stronger. The Democrats’ message must be far more convincing than it has been, and their counterattack against Republican irresponsibility far more powerful.