Today’s Courier Herald Column:
House Republicans will leave Washington on Wednesday and head a few hours south to Williamsburg where they will have a three day “retreat”. It should hardly be considered three days of rest and relaxation. Even more so than most years, this will have to be a working vacation.
Between now and the end of March issues of the nation’s debt ceiling, sequestration budget cuts, and an expiring continuing resolution to fund the government must be addressed. The Republican voice on these issues will largely be expressed by the House of Representatives. The retreat, hopefully, will allow the house to appear on the same page.
There was a small revolt against re-electing speaker Boehner from within the far right corner of the Republican caucus just after the New Year’s fiscal cliff vote. Key to tamping down any hint of rebellion was the commitment that the fiscal cliff vote was just a step which preserved as much of current tax rates as could be, with spending issues addressed in this next round. Any sense that Republicans are the party of fiscal discipline now rides on how they handle these three issues.
As a matter of strategy, Republicans continue to hold a weak hand. They are only in charge of the House, with the Senate and White House continuing to be held by Democrats. As the debate is currently framed with the public, Republicans are the ones being labeled as “obstructionists”, despite the Senate’s refusal to pass a budget for over 1,350 days and the President recently signaling – again – that he will not meet his legally prescribed deadline to submit a budget to Congress.
Instead of proposing legitimate proposals to cut spending, Democrats have taken a bifurcated strategy to chide Republicans on not giving unlimited borrowing power to a President who now claims we have no spending problem while doing everything possible to keep the national political discussion focused on potential sweeping gun control regulation and not on the imminent threat imposed by the country’s fiscal mess.
Republicans must spend the days at this retreat coalescing around a strategy to regain the high ground in message, as well as to regain public trust not just as a party that wants to cut taxes, but as the one concerned with closing the existing budget deficit. They should start by temporarily taking the debt ceiling off of the table.
Of the three deadlines in front of Congress, the debt ceiling is the one that should be used as a last resort, not the first line to be drawn in the sand. Congress – with the Republican House’s help – is the one who appropriated money to spend through March 30th when the current CR expires. In order to remove the criticism that Congress won’t increase the nation’s borrowing capacity to cover spending that they have already authorized, the House should immediately pass an increase to the debt ceiling that would cover spending through March 30th. If the Senate refuses to pass the same measure or the President chooses to veto, it would then be much easier to demonstrate who is actually being an obstructionist in this process.
The spending deadlines would then be put in the proper order of magnitude. Sequestration on March 1st would be painful, but wouldn’t shut the government down and may be the signal needed to show that Republicans are serious about actual spending cuts. The thirty days following would allow for honest debate on a long term spending fix which must address entitlements if there is to be meaningful reduction in long term deficits.
Republicans should also use this term to remind the President of his campaign promises. A President and complicit media chided Republicans for not being willing to go along with $3 in cuts for every $1 in revenue increased. The President, now having secured revenue increases from Congress, says we don’t have a spending problem but continues the never ending cry that “the rich” should pay more. Republicans have come to the table with Revenue against the wishes of their base. It is time to demand Democrats offer and accept spending cuts.
House Republicans will spend three days among themselves to figure out how to address these issues as unified body while projecting leadership from a minority party position. If they intend not to return as the actual minority party in the House in 2015, they need to adopt a strategy that can be clearly articulated to and accepted by the general public. That’s some heavy lifting for a three day working retreat.