Those who think the Republicans in the House and Senate have several months to get organized are seriously misreading the political tea leaves.
Even though the smaller Senate GOP minority and House Republican majority won’t officially be in place until January, the leadership will be facing a very difficult decision over federal spending in less than a month when the the current continuing resolution — which is funding all federal agencies and departments that operate with annual appropriations — expires.
That’s the first point at which the GOP will have to face up to one of its most prominent campaign pledges: To significantly cut federal spending. The vote to extend the CR will be the first opportunity to face that challenge head on because it can be filibustered in the Senate. The Republicans there — (Actually, all you need is one: Can you say Jim DeMint?) are in a position to prevent the current CR from being extended if the new version doesn’t reduce spending to the level they want.
It’s certainly possible that the Senate GOP leadership will decide to punt in December. They could say that they want to wait until their colleagues in the House are in the majority so that they can work together to cut spending, or some other similar spin-like message. Instead of forcing the issue in December 2010, they would agree to extend the existing CR until early next year (or insist on some type of symbolic change) and then come back in January armed for budget bear.
But there are four reasons why waiting isn’t the best strategy.
First, from a strictly technical budget (and likely least important) perspective, waiting until next January or February will make it much more difficult to come up with the actual budget cuts that will be needed to achieve the lower spending levels the GOP says it wants. At that point there will only be eight or seven months left in fiscal 2011 and that will mean that the spending reductions will only be achievable by substantial reductions in personnel. Even under the best of circumstances, it will take most agencies and departments a month or so to identify the employees who will be let go and to then implement the changes. That means that the reductions will have to be much larger and the political difficulty in doing so much, much greater than will be the case if the process begins in December .
Second, the tea partiers insisted it would not be politics as usual in Washington if they were elected and this will be their first opportunity to show they meant it. Even though the just-elected senators will not yet be in office, they will be able to put pressure on the leadership to meet their demands in December. This especially will be the case because any member of the leadership (the chairman of the appropriations committee, for example) who tries to thwart the effort could be threatened with a challenge when the new Congress convenes in January if the threat comes down in December.
Third, shutting down the government in December might be the best way to seal the deal with the party base that was all but guaranteed this type of confrontation during the campaign and will still be walking around with its chest puffed out in December. By contrast, not taking advantage of the opportunity might well begin to alienate some who would see it as a betrayal.
Finally, December might well be the best time to push a Democratic Party that is disillusioned and depressed from the election and a White House that is reeling from the election results. It is not at all clear that congressional Democrats or the Obama administration will have a plan in place during the lame duck session to deal with the extreme political and communications challenge a shutdown will create. By contrast, a threatened shutdown in February would definitely provide the time to come up with a plan to deal with it.