WASHINGTON - House Republican leaders seized the high ground this week in the furious battle to curb federal spending, forcing Senate Democrats to produce their first budget in nearly four years.
It was a political high wire act, but House Speaker John Boehner pulled it off without a hitch. In one master stroke, he reunited most of his rebellious Republicans behind his budget strategy, and divided the Democrats.
When the smoke cleared in the latest budgetary skirmish Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has dictatorially ignored previous House budgets, agreed to accept the GOP's limited debt ceiling suspension as is, and the White House said President Obama would sign it.
Boehner effectively succeeded in keeping the federal debt ceiling extension on a tight leash at least until May, making the White House and the Democrats buy a short-term extension deal they said they could never accept.
An army of conservative organizations were demanding that House Republicans refuse to take any action on the debt ceiling until a budget plan was passed. But Boehner and his deputies took a different course that temporarily defused the debt ceiling bomb, without giving any ground for the long term.
In short, they withheld their support for raising the debt limit, while forcing Senate Democrats to do what they have long refused to do: Send a budget to the House to begin the legislative process of reducing the deficit and the debt.
"The premise here is pretty simple," the speaker said in Wednesday's House debate. "It says that there should be no long-term increase in the debt limit until there's a long-term plan to deal with the fiscal crisis that faces our country."
And Boehner made it clear to Reid and his accomplices that House Republicans will not agree to any increase in the debt limit until there is a budget deal.
"It's time for Congress to get serious about this," he warned Reid and the White House.
Support from House Republicans was overwhelming -- passing on a vote of 285 to 144, with the help of some Democrats. Only 33 Republicans voted no.
But Boehner added another caveat to the bill that played well with the GOP's political base and the nation at large. It's rallying cry: "No budget, no pay."
In a nutshell, the Senate must produce a budget-cutting plan by April 15 or else their paychecks will be withheld and put into escrow for the duration of this Congress until January 2015.