By Michael Barone
Have the House Republicans come up with a winning strategy on the debt ceiling and spending cuts? Or just a viable one? Maybe so.
They certainly need one that is at least the latter, if not the former. Barack Obama is up in the polls since the election, as most re-elected presidents have been. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows him with 52 percent approval and 44 percent disapproval. Other public polls have similar results.
In contrast, the NBC/WSJ poll reports that only 26 percent have positive feelings about the Republican Party and 51 negative feelings. Toward Speaker John Boehner only 18 percent have positive feelings and 37 percent negative feelings.
It’s usually true that groups get lower ratings than individuals and congressional leaders get lower ratings than presidents. Still, these results represent a pretty negative verdict on House Republicans’ attempts to wrestle Obama into supporting their preferred fiscal policies.
Defections by enough House Republicans to defeat Boehner’s Plan B approach to the fiscal cliff ended up producing a compromise considerably less to their liking. The agreement reached by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did limit effective tax increases to those with incomes over $400,000.
But it also gave Democrats something they want — a permanent fix to the Alternative Minimum Tax, which threatened to engulf high-earning Democratic voters in high-tax states like New York, New Jersey and California. Republicans used to dangle a one-year AMT fix as a negotiating chip in fiscal battles. Now they can’t.
The House Republicans seem to be emerging from their Williamsburg retreat with a united approach to the debt ceiling issue, however. Raise the debt ceiling for three months and couple it with a cut off of congressional pay if the Democratic-majority Senate fails to pass a budget, as it has for the last three years.
This is similar to the approached advocated by former Bush budget negotiator Keith Hennessey: Give Democrats an alternative between short-term debt limit increases with no immediate spending cuts and a long-term increase with serious spending cuts.
Senate Democrats are a more attractive target than the president. The NBC/WSJ poll shows only 16 percent with positive feelings toward Majority Leader Harry Reid and 28 percent with negative feelings.
Fully 36 percent have no view, significantly more than the 22 percent with no view about Boehner. That leaves plenty of room to drive Reid’s negatives up. The no-budget, no-pay provision is perhaps a gimmick, but may strike a chord with voters.
And it may help united the 234 House Republicans, 43 percent of whom were first elected in 2010 or are freshmen first elected in 2012. Most share the views and impulses of the tea party movement and are determined to cut government spending.
The tea party movement, like the peace movement four decades before, injected many new people into an old party. Tea party voters, like peacenik voters, tend to prefer the purest candidates in primaries, and tea party congressmen, like peacenik congressmen, tend to take confrontational and purist stands on issues.
But just as peacenik Democrats learned that the public will not tolerate cutting off defense spending when troops are in the field, so tea party Republicans seem to be learning that the public won’t tolerate defaulting on the national debt.
They feel quite differently about spending cuts. A poll by the Republican Tarrance Group for the Public Notice group showed 74 percent agreeing that the federal government spends too much and rejecting Obama’s notion that “we don’t have a spending problem.”
So far this year the spotlight has been on divisions among Republicans. Twice Boehner has brought to the floor bills opposed by most House Republicans — the fiscal cliff deal and the Sandy appropriation.
That violates former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s rule never to schedule a bill opposed by a majority of the majority party. But Hastert served for only two years with a Democratic president, at a time when we had budget surpluses.
If Boehner can get a Republican majority for a short-term debt limit increase, the spotlight falls on Harry Reid and Senate Democrats. Reid has been blocking budgets because he can’t get a majority of 50 Democrats.
House Republicans are learning they can’t govern from just one house of Congress. But they can shine the spotlight on Senate and White House Democrats’ inability or unwillingness to govern.
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