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The Republicans’ Kabuki House

The 112th Congress got underway with the House Republicans’ ritual reading of the U.S. Constitution.  More symbolic measures are in the wings; Kabuki exercises continued with this morning’s House vote on the rule for the bill to repeal last year’s health reform legislation.  This closed rule, which ensures an up-or-down vote without amendments, passed 236-181, with all Republicans and just four Democrats supporting it.  That’s probably about how the vote on the actual bill will go down next week, and the sparse number of Democrats crossing the line—there were 34 who voted against health reform last year, 13 of whom have returned in this Congress—is disappointing to the GOP.  The repeal effort will die, quietly or noisily, in the Senate.

But amidst all the competing rhetoric about health reform, Republicans took one step with even larger implications than the reform law itself: exempting the repeal legislation from budget offset rules, even though, or more likely because, the Congressional Budget Office “scored” it as increasing the federal budget deficit by some $230 billion over the next ten years (no surprise, since CBO scored the health reform legislation as a deficit reducer thanks to its health care cost containment provisions).  Speaker John Boehner explained the move by simply asserting that he didn’t believe CBO’s numbers.

This gambit doubles down on the earlier step by House Republicans to ignore previously universal standards for measuring budget deficits: their decision to exempt tax cuts—all tax cuts—from budget offset rules.  The health repeal “scoring” decision means that even spending increases will be off the table if Republicans choose to believe they won’t ultimately add to the deficit, or simply favor them on policy grounds.  The next shoe to drop could be a similar announcement placing defense spending off the table, which a variety of leading Republicans from Sarah Palin to John Bolton have already called for.

If deficit reduction does become a preeminent goal in the 112th Congress, the pressure this kind of sequestering would place on domestic spending—particularly nondefense domestic spending—is incalculable.  But House Republicans may cut themselves some immediate slack by scaling down the spending reduction target for current-year appropriations, which will be taken up in March when the continuing resolution passed during the lame-duck session expires.  Their rationalization for this action might be that the $100 billion cuts promised in the 2010 campaign document, the Pledge to America, used the Obama administration’s appropriations requests, not actual spending, as a benchmark, lowering the target to about half the original number.

Either way, the appropriations bill has become closely linked to a vote on increasing the public debt limit, which conservative activists have become increasingly excited about defeating, regardless of the potentially dire effect on financial markets.  March could mark the contemporary equivalent of the 1995 confrontation between congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton that led to a temporary government shutdown. In that case, playing chicken did not work out well for the GOP, but they are under very intense pressure from their Tea Party faction to hang tough.

Overshadowing even the heath reform repeal vote and the impending collision over spending is the appointment of former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley as White House Chief of Staff, and of former Clinton administration National Economic Council director Gene Sperling to the same post in the Obama administration.  Daley’s extensive financial sector background, along with his outspoken opposition to making universal health reform a key agenda item for Obama in 2009 and 2010, has made his appointment the latest flash-point for liberal unhappiness with the White House.  But his and Sperling’s appointments also indicate the administration has decided it’s in a difficult and protracted battle with Republicans on almost every topic, and wants people on board with parallel experience under Clinton.