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The Incredible Shrinking House Republican Budget Cut Promise

It’s getting hard to pinpoint House Republicans on the budget. First they pledged to cut $100 billion dollars from the discretionary non-defense budget – a 20% cut – in 2011. Then they said they actually based that number on the President’s proposed budget, which wasn’t taken up, so they wouldn’t have to cut as much. Then they said that, by the time the continuing resolution ended on March 4, the fiscal year 2011 would be half over, so they would cut their number in half. Then they said they might need another continuing resolution because they would run out of time on the appropriations bills. Now the number has shrunk even further.

But now they are talking about cuts as slim as $30 billion, blaming the change on the fine print that no one read — or if they read, did not understand […]

Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), who’s been in Congress since 1993 and now chairs the Homeland Security Committee, told me that $100 billion is of course unrealistic and the cuts will be $50 billion, tops. Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), the new chair of Oversight and Government Reform, told me to forget this year’s number and explained that his goal is to cut $200 billion over two years. Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), the incoming chair of Financial Services’ domestic monetary policy subcommittee, said that all of these numbers are chicken feed and a waste of time.

And over in the Senate, a top GOP aide told me that the real bottom line is a max of $30 billion for the rest of this fiscal year.

This backtrack was inevitable; to get $100 billion out this year would force mass layoffs that the party simply didn’t want to vote for. But it will not come across that way to the Republican tea party base. One leader called the changes “an absolute joke.”

It’s an “absolute joke” that Republicans in the House won’t be able to cut $100 billion from the budget this fiscal year, Meckler said. Republicans have explained that Democrats have already locked in spending levels through March — half way through the fiscal year — making their goal of $100 billion in cuts right away unrealistic. The GOP says they will more than make up for it by the end of 2011.

But Meckler said that explanation was akin to saying, “I have a $2,000 mortgage payment, so I’m going to put 50 cents in the bank.”

Meckler said that the American people were no longer ignorant about government spending, so if the GOP stops at the $100 billion figure, he predicts they’ll “get an earful from the American people.”

He of course wants to return spending to 2000 levels, not 2008 levels. I guess we’ll be turning that volunteer army in Afghanistan into actual not-for-pay volunteers, then. They can get their own food.

These internal pressures within the Republican Party are bound to bubble over. And it could be true, as Atrios said, that the damage to the budget from Republicans will be of the “piss off liberals” variety.

But I have an alternative explanation, or actually two. First of all, the new Speaker has no control of his base, and could easily have to change his tune on a dime when he realizes he doesn’t actually have the votes for a compromised vision. Second, nobody on the Republican side has wavered on their goal of going back to 2008 levels of spending for the 2012 fiscal year; in fact, they have promised to cut more than $100 billion next year to make up for not cutting as much in this fiscal year. And, what they may want to do is wait for the President to do their dirty work for them.

Republicans are looking toward the State of the Union address for signs of whether they’ll be able to work with President Obama over the next two years.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the new House majority leader, said that House Republicans are looking toward the annual address, slated for later this month, too see whether the president will offer an olive branch toward the GOP on spending cuts and other issues.

“I do think that the common ground is in cutting spending,” Cantor said Thursday morning on CNN. “And I expect when the president comes to deliver the State of the Union address, for him to lay out some significant spending cuts.”

It’s not that Republicans don’t want to enact the spending cuts; they don’t want to be solely responsible for them. If the President comes out with a bunch of spending cuts, then they can just piggy-back on that. He’s been known to pre-compromise, after all.

So while it’s amusing to see Republicans whittle away their promises, I wouldn’t be so sure that major spending cuts won’t hit the economy in this calendar year. Which is something that the economy really still cannot afford. It’s one of those intangible events, an anti-stimulus that could wipe out the stimulative gains from other policies. Not to mention there’s still a hostage-taking event on the horizon; Treasury just told Congress that the debt limit could be hit by March 31.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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