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.
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