WASHINGTON — Republican conservatives were the chief winners in the budget deal that forced Democrats to accept historic spending cuts they strongly opposed.
Emboldened by last fall's election victories, fiscal conservatives have changed the debate in Washington. The question no longer is whether to cut spending, but how deeply. Rarely mentioned is the idea of higher taxes to lower the deficit.
Their success is all the more notable because Democrats control the Senate and White House.
But more difficult decisions lie ahead, and it's not clear whether GOP lawmakers can rely on their winning formula. They pushed Democrats to the brink, then gave in just enough to claim impressive achievements, rather than holding the line and triggering a government shutdown that might have yielded far less politically.
The GOP victories came on spending. Their concessions dealt mainly with social issues, where they tried to limit abortions and restrict environmental rules.
House Republicans who care intensely about such social issues may fight harder next time, giving Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, fewer bargaining chips to appease Democrats. Tea party Republicans, some of whom found the cuts too small in Friday's last-minute agreement, might insist on deeper ones from now on.
Two fast-approaching debates could make this past week's showdown look like a preliminary skirmish.
Congress soon must vote to increase the government's borrowing limit to avoid the first-ever default on U.S. loan payments. With the 2011 budget battle still fresh, lawmakers are now focusing on the spending debate for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The House Budget Committee has approved, on a partisan vote, a bill that would cut spending by $5.8 trillion over 10 years and make major cost-saving changes to the Medicare and Medicaid health programs.
These are the big-picture, big-money issues that tea partyers have awaited eagerly. Many have pledged to vote against a higher debt ceiling without major give-backs from Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama. The 2012 spending blueprint written by the House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is on a collision course with Democrats determined to allow only modest changes, if any, to Medicare, Medicaid and other programs.
"It will be much more difficult, with much higher stakes, with the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, who co-wrote a book on Congress, "The Broken Branch."
"I see little sign the tea party members and their allies will lower their demands or embrace a pragmatic strategy," Mann said. "Boehner will have a hard time duplicating this success, especially if Obama is more forceful in filling the vacuum on the Democratic side of the debate."
Obama's re-election chances will depend partly on his ability to resolve these issues ahead. With some skill and luck, he may emerge either as a pragmatic problem-solver or the man who took reasonable stands against an out-of-the-mainstream GOP that forced a government shutdown or debt default.
In a statement shortly after the budget deal late Friday, Obama said some cuts will be painful and he acknowledged, "I would not have made these cuts in better circumstances."
But the president said the agreement protected "those investments that will help America compete for new jobs," including education, clean energy and medical research.
The budget negotiations are difficult because voters sent contradictory messages last fall.
They want Congress to stop the partisan bickering and solve the nation's big problems, including the deficit. Many voters, especially in elections where Republicans ousted House Democrats, also said they are sick of wishy-washy lawmakers who compromise on major issues.
Anyone who missed their warning had only to look at former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. A solid conservative, he nonetheless was denied his party's nomination by GOP activists angry that he cooperated with Democrats on a few issues.
Boehner, a skilled legislator, spent weeks talking with House conservatives who insisted on $61 billion in current-year spending cuts. That was the pro-rated remainder of conservatives' campaign pledge to cut $100 billion in the 2011 budget year, now half over.
Democrats complained bitterly about the first $10 billion in cuts, but eventually said they could not go above $33 billion. The final deal calls for $38.5 billion in cuts.
Boehner and his lieutenants repeatedly told the adamant budget-cutters, some of them new to public office, that they were getting a good deal. A short time ago, he told them, Democrats would not have considered anything approaching $40 billion. Take your victory and get ready for the next fight, he urged them.
The main price? Surrendering, for now at least, Republican efforts to end federal support for Planned Parenthood and to bar the government from regulating greenhouse gases.
Boehner persuaded enough Republicans to go along. Soon the country will see if he can repeat the feat with social conservatives who think it's now their turn to prevail, and with anti-spending advocates who viewed last week as an appetizer for an upcoming feast on federal programs and costs.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for The Associated Press
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