2014 Budget: How Republicans Can Win the Politics Of the Budget Debate

After spending the 2012 election criticizing President Obama, and Senate Democrats' failure to pass a budget, House Republicans are now refusing to make progress on the issue. Republicans entered the 2012 campaign with an excellent set of talking points detailing how, despite its flaws, the Ryan budget offered a true shot a deficit reduction while Democrats were unable to create a budget of any sort. With the recent passage of a wildly different budget in the Senate, Republicans on the hill can no longer claim Democratic stall tactics, and are instead refusing to meet with the Democrats to begin negotiations on a single, unified, budget.

Republicans have a fair point that the bills may have too many fundamental differences to be reconcilable. Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) publicly questioned whether negotiations at this stage would have any potential at creating an effective compromise. For Republicans, the political implications of this change of tack are unsettling. With dominant control of the House, Republicans were able to point to an obstructionist Senate and president as the source of political gridlock. They could pass bills with little chance of bipartisan support through the House and make it appear that they were hard at work while the Senate dithered.

Such bills had twofold appeal. Legislation that pandered to the party's base could be passed and provide red meat to the increasingly radical Tea Party fringe of the party. Meanwhile, moderate voters would have the perception of Republicans hard at work without enduring the actual enacting of any extreme policies. With the Senate suddenly producing a budget of their own, House Republicans must abandon the tactic. More worryingly, Republicans must find a way to address the Senate budget in a way that pacifies the conservative base while appearing less than political to mainstream voters. Standing against the Democratic Senate's budget is made especially problematic by the House's moralistic posturing against the Senate's refusal to work on the Ryan budget.

Republicans in the House have few good options going forward and will likely have to enter in to some sort of negotiations with the Senate to demonstrate their good faith efforts towards a budget compromise. It seems unlikely that Republicans will support any deal that includes even nominal revenue increases. It seems even more improbable that Senate Democrats will accept the draconian reforms to entitlement programs set forth in the Ryan budget. For Republicans, appearing willing to compromise is far more politically important than actually reaching an agreement on the budget. Even if negotiations do not prove fruitful, Republicans can avoid looking hypocritical and keep their base and attract independents. Accepting revenue increases, while possibly necessary to form a budget, will cost more in terms of alienating the base, than it will yield benefits in moderate political capital. Republicans should offer to discuss compromise, but make few concessions.

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