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.
It may be of dubious constitutionality, but it reinforced the GOP's hardball message to the president and his allies in the Senate: You may have won re-election to a second term with a little more than 50 percent of the popular vote, but the American people voted to keep the House in GOP hands by a decisive margin. Deal with it.
Meantime, while House Republicans waited for Senate Democrats to act on its budget-cutting blueprint, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan served notice that he is preparing a tougher budget-cutting plan on top of the spending cuts previously agreed to.
"We are not going to lose the $1.2 trillion we've already got from the last debt-ceiling [battle]. We are going to have to negotiate on top of that for a new debt-ceiling increase," Ryan told reporters at a the Wall Street Journal breakfast.
"We're very serious about this," Ryan said, adding that Democrats can forget about any further tax increases from here on out.
In this month's fiscal cliff negotiations, Obama managed to squeeze higher taxes on Americans earning more than $400,000 a year, which would extract an estimated $650 billion in additional revenue from the economy over 10 years.
"They got their revenue increases already," Ryan told reporters. Taxes are off the table.
But the debt limit's suspension until May 18 is only one of several other budget deadlines looming over Congress and the White House.
There are automatic budget cuts scheduled to carve $110 billion from the Pentagon and domestic programs on March 1 if Congress does not move to lessen the big bite it will take out of defense spending.
Then there's the continuing resolution, an auto-pilot spending practice that has kept federal funds flowing to the government through March 26 without a budget. The government could shut down without an extension.
Then there's the April 15 deadline when the House and Senate must approve their budget blueprints. Harry Reid's Senate has routinely ignored the deadline, but this time it may be different. Their paychecks are on the line.
Finally, the debt ceiling suspension will end on May 19. Will the Senate approve its budget blueprint before then? Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray says one will be adopted this year, the first since 2009.
But then comes the hardest part when the House and Senate must begin negotiations on a budget that can pass Congress. As things stand, the two chambers are miles apart on spending levels, with the House Republicans demanding deeper cuts than the Democrats are willing to accept.
Both sides are dug in for trench warfare. Republicans want to reduce the spiraling cost of entitlements and make significant reductions in discretionary spending.
Democrats oppose significant Medicare reforms and are still pushing the idea of raising taxes on the wealthy, a nonstarter in the House, instead of cutting waste-ridden government spending to the bone.
Deadlines will come and go and may be extended. The national debt will swell by $450 billion by May. Tempers will flare, charges will be hurled. Welcome to democracy in action.
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