Budget Deal Leaves Liberals Disheartened
The $38.5 billion deal brokered between Republicans and President Barack Obama on Friday night may have resolved the immediate threat of a government shutdown. But it didn’t take long for many liberal Democrats to begin to realize that there might be not much cause for celebration in the substance of that deal.
In the final hours before the federal government was to run out of money April 8, Democrats homed in on attempts by Republicans to pass anti-abortion policy riders that would defund women’s health programs and Planned Parenthood. But soon after the deal was struck, Democrats turned back to a debate not about where to cut, but whether there should be cuts at all - and who should bear the brunt of the burden.
Princeton University professor Paul Krugman noted that by agreeing to this level of budget cuts, Obama had accepted the premise that the economy has recovered enough to withstand the withdrawal of federal spending. Despite the fragile economic recovery, the economy is still not strong enough, Krugman argued.
“It’s worth noting that this follows just a few months after another big concession, in which he gave in to Republican demands for tax cuts,” Krugman said in his New York Times column on Saturday. “The net effect of these two sets of concessions is, of course, a substantial increase in the deficit.”
But it seemed that the Obama administration had long ago abandoned that line of argument.
In the early stages of negotiations with Republicans, Obama surrendered the $40 billion in spending increases that he had originally requested in his 2011 budget and began to look for billions more to bring spending cuts closer to the nearly $100 billion level House Republicans had demanded.
And as far back as last November, Obama, declaring the message of the midterm election learned, made it clear that getting the economy growing and the budget deficit under control would be his top priorities. And, in his view, that meant spending cuts.
“I think the overwhelming message that I hear from the voters is that we want everybody to act responsibly in Washington,” Obama said in a press conference the day after Democrats lost control of the House and also lost six seats in the Senate. “We want you to work harder to arrive at consensus. We want you to focus completely on jobs and the economy and growing it, so that we’re ensuring a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”
What followed was a budget compromise deal that irked Democrats for many of the same reasons this most recent compromise with Republicans has muted the joy about an averted shutdown among progressive members in the House.
The tax deal gave Republicans much of what they demanded — an extension of tax cuts for the wealthy — in exchange for the extension of unemployment benefits for the poor. And this most recent budget deal gives Republicans more in spending cuts than House Speaker John Boehner had asked for. In exchange, funding for Planned Parenthood and women’s health issues were spared.
At least some Democrats now say that those cuts were too deep, and will disproportionately affect the poor.
“The American people have been told the agreement contains both ‘historic’ and ‘painful’ cuts. The question will be painful for whom,” said Rep. George Miller in a statement in shortly after the California Democrat and other Democrats voted against the first of two pieces of legislation that would allow the government to stay open for rest of the fiscal year.
“Poor and middle-class families have already received more than their fair share of pain in this economy, while the wealthy and special interests have paid no price.”
And Republicans managed to preserve controversial policy riders targeting abortion funding in the District of Columbia, to the anger of local officials. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray released a scathing statement on Saturday morning calling the deal “ludicrous” and declaring that once again, the people of nation’s capital had been “been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, who occupies Washington’s at-large congressional seat but does not have a vote in the House, called the administration and Senate Democrats hypocritical for not defending access to women’s health services in the District with the same vigor with which they defended Planned Parenthood’s funding at the national level.
“This morning, District residents learned that the administration and Senate Democrats were willing to let the House Republicans treat them as second-class citizens,” Norton wrote in a statement. “I am relieved that the bill did not include the national policy riders I abhorred. ... However, this entire city of 600,000 taxpaying Americans has every reason to be angry that the administration and Senate Democrats did not draw a similar line in the sand that stopped at the District, and the self-governing rights of its citizens.”
Though many of the details of the spending bill remain unclear, reports indicate that it also includes a provision banning the Obama administration from closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, another campaign promise that he has struggled to make progress on in the past two years.
On Friday night, Obama called the cuts painful, but necessary — even while he said that under better circumstance he would not have agreed to them.
“A few months ago, I was able to sign a tax cut for American families because both parties worked through their differences and found common ground,” Obama said in the Blue Room of the White House on Friday night, with the Washington Monument illuminated in the background. “Now the same cooperation will make possible the biggest annual spending cut in history.”
As Obama walked out of the room, he was greeted by cheers from his battle-weary staff. The compromise had done more than prevent federal parks from closing and federal workers from losing their paychecks; it had preserved Obama’s well-cultivated reputation as a dealmaker and consensus-builder. That reputation will be critical to rebuilding his “hope” and “change” brand ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
“When the two parties are unable to reach an agreement, they’re perceived to be bickering to the detriment of the country,” said Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, a member of the liberal blogosphere. “Having a deal, no matter what the substance of the deal is, appears to benefit [Obama] politically.”
But in the deal, Democrats saw Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid abandon a position on the wisdom of spending cuts that differentiated Democrats from Republicans.
Washington Post pundit Ezra Klein ripped Obama and Reid’s celebratory statements after a deal that he said was anything but what a Democratic president should embrace.
“If you were just tuning in, you might’ve thought Boehner had been arguing for moderation, while both Obama and Reid sought to cut deeper,” Klein wrote. “You would never have known that Democrats had spent months resisting these “historic” cuts, warning that they’d cost jobs and slow the recovery.”
Shortly after midnight, the House voted on a stopgap spending measure that would enact the first $2 billion in cuts, while paving the way for the larger compromise bill that had been brokered hours before. Forty-two Democrats, mostly members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, voted against it.
And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the founding chairwoman of that Caucus, was not talking. Her office released a statement saying that she “looks forward” to reviewing the deal when she returns from Boston.
Greenwald said that compromise may mean swallowing some painful concessions, but it should not mean acquiring the economic philosophy of the opposition.
“The problem though is that there’s a time to cut the budget, which is when the economy is doing really well,” Greenwald said in an interview Saturday afternoon. “The difference between the Republicans and Democrats is that [Democrats believe] during economically difficult times you need government spending. This is a difference that has now become completely obliterated because now both parties say they need spending cuts.”