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House Republicans Blinked on Spending, So Now What?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

It is difficult to dream up a more ideal time to have a high-profile showdown with intransient Democrats than today. Utterly incapable of governing, Democrats last year did not even attempt to pass a budget through Congress. After a decisive electoral loss and with our nation at the tipping point of fiscal ruin with a $1.6 trillion debt, Democrats refuse to contemplate any real cuts to spending. And the Majority Leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, goes to the floor and waxes poetic about the urgent national priority of funding the Cowboy Poetry Festival.

What did Republicans in the House do? They blinked by passing a series of short-term continuing resolutions to avoid a large-scale showdown over spending.

The big spending fight of 2011 will come in several months when Congress considers raising the debt limit. The debate is likely to unfold very similarly to how the short-term funding fight has played out. Will Congress demand transformational changes in exchange for raising the debt limit?

One hero of the new Congress is Florida Rep. Allen West. Last week, West told a local rally, “There were some of those new freshmen that you sent up to Washington, DC that you thought would hold the vanguard and they didn’t.”

Unfortunately, West is correct. Rather than standing on principle, some voted for yet another stopgap spending resolution that contained only marginal spending reductions and lacked the important policy riders that conservatives fought for just a month earlier. A strategy of short-term stopgap spending measures is destined to fail, as it plays right into the liberal’s playbook.

Well over a month ago, House Republicans stepped up to the plate and passed a spending resolution to fund the government for 2011 and cut $61 billion out of the Democrats’ $1.65 trillion deficit. Harry Reid’s Senate responded by passing nothing, failing to come to the negotiating table, and putting the country at risk of a government shutdown.

This is how we have gotten to today’s stalemate. And by virtually ruling out the option of a government shutdown, Republicans have left themselves with little leverage over head-in-the-sand Democrats.

In the grand scheme of things, cutting $61 billion out of a $1.6 trillion deficit is small potatoes – less than 4%. Those cuts are certainly necessary and important, especially as a trust building measure between Congress and a disaffected populace. However, what really has conservatives anxious is the upcoming fight on whether to raise the debt ceiling.

Sometime this spring, our government will bump up against the debt ceiling and Congress will be confronted by hyperbolic rhetoric from the Obama administration. The big-spenders in the White House will demand the ceiling be raised immediately, no strings attached. They will insist any delay will result in “catastrophic” economic harm.

Why should we have any confidence that when the debt ceiling vote hits this same stalemate?

There is little doubt their first offer will a solid step in the right direction, with a mix of reforms and spending cuts that if enacted would serve as a victory for the future of our country, and our children and grandchildren.

As things stand right now, it is nearly impossible to fathom a combination of real cuts and reforms that would be immediately adopted by the Senate. Senate Democrats have just not shown a willingness to address the serious problems we face. It’ll be déjà vu all over again.

So what will House Republicans do? After the initial stalemate, will they compromise and allow a far weaker debt limit to be passed? If so, we will have missed a major point of leverage to force Democrats to consider policies they wouldn’t have dreamed of talking about a year ago.

Hitting the debt limit does not put America’s credit-worthiness at risk, but it does force government to stop borrowing. All of the deficit spending of the United States government will have to immediately stop. This includes a lot of programs Republicans are not yet ready to cut. Will they be willing to tolerate this form of a government slowdown? This would be exactly the sort of principled fight conservatives need to pick.

If they pursue the first strategy, they will alienate conservatives and their decent reductions and reforms will falter. However, if they stand on principle, conservatives will rally to their cause and bring enormous pressure on both the Senate and the White House.

Which one will they choose? It’s too early to tell, but, based on the experience of the last month, conservatives are left with little to rely on but hope.

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