WASHINGTON – It was, in the grand scheme, just a little change of course, but the decision to cut spending even a little after years of huge increases brought the government to the brink of a shutdown and sets the stage for a much bigger fight that will dominate Washington politics through the 2012 elections and perhaps for years to come.
One leader, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will face the challenge of navigating the demands of tea party conservatives to cut spending deeply while not scaring off independent voters. He emerged from this first round as a skilled negotiator and effective leader.
Another, President Barack Obama, who went along with Republican demands on taxes and spending as he seeks support from the independents he needs to win re-election, still faces questions about his hands-off leadership style and low-profile approach.
The coming clashes over the nation’s debt ceiling and the 2012 budget will test whether the nation has more government than it’s willing to pay for. The government’s annual deficit is $1.6 trillion, adding to a debt of $14 trillion that is expected to grow for years to come.
When the smiles and backslapping wear off from Friday night’s deal to finance the government until the end of September, reality will settle back in, analysts said.
“The real test will be whether both sides can continue to work together to find real solutions to the serious fiscal challenges facing our nation,” said David Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general and founder of a group called No Labels.
“Everyone’s happy it’s done. But it doesn’t speak well about how Washington works,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
“The only way they got to this point was by ducking some of the hot-button issues. It’s Washington’s way of pushing things aside.”
Despite the tension and threat of a government shutdown, the deal addressed just a sliver of the budget for just half of the year. It cut $38.5 billion from a $3.8 trillion budget.
That number came after steady budget increases that saw federal spending rise from $1.8 trillion in 2001, when George W. Bush took office, to $3.5 trillion in 2009, the year Obama took office, to $3.8 trillion this year.
The result is a political clash that pits alarm over soaring debt against the popularity of federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security that consume much of the budget.
Boehner pledged to cut spending much more than this weekend’s agreement does.
That will be difficult. But Boehner emerged from this first budget fight with a stronger hand, having won cuts from Obama and the Democrats while convincing tea party conservatives that the relatively small stakes weren’t worth shutting down the government.
“John Boehner proved his mettle as speaker,” said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “He was very adroit in letting tea party freshmen have their day in the sun and keeping them from bolting. He deserves a lot of credit. In the end, all sides clearly made the same calculation, that nobody wanted the risk of a shutdown. But whether that still holds when they start doing the debt ceiling is another story.”
Conservatives are expected to use a vote this spring to raise the limit on how much the government can borrow to demand more cuts. The vote is critical to keeping the U.S. from defaulting on its debt.
At the same time, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposes a budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 that would cut $4 trillion over the next decade, in part by changing Medicare, the program for the elderly, and Medicaid, the health care program for the poor.
Obama has not tipped his hand about how or whether he’ll engage in that larger debate.
He left much of the public posturing last week to other Democrats, part of a broader strategy of keeping him away from TV cameras out of the belief among senior aides that he was overexposed in his first two years and lost his ability to command attention.
Obama also has not proposed a plan to address the biggest drivers of coming deficits, so-called entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, and he brushed aside most of the recommendations of his own deficit commission, which suggested cuts in those programs.
“If anybody’s going to lead a long-term solution, he’s the indispensable man,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. “So far, we’re waiting. They know they have to get to the big stuff. But they’ve been hamstrung by the small stuff.”
“One thing is clear: People are beginning to notice President Obama’s self-imposed absence from this discussion,” William Galston, a Democratic strategist and veteran of the Clinton White House, wrote this week. “Surveys are beginning to chart a decline in the public perception of him as a strong leader.”
Obama may be able to avoid a specific discussion of long-term deficit reduction until the 2012 election, Galston said. But if a bipartisan group working in the Senate can forge a consensus around the deficit commission’s recommendations, it could force Obama’s hand.
“He will have no choice but to respond,” Galston said. “Reiterating his current proposal wouldn’t work. I hope someone in the White House is thinking about Plan B.”