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This Is How Those Crazy, Divided Republicans Get Their Way

Feeling nostalgic for big budget fights? Do you miss watching House Speaker John Boehner trying to control the Republican caucus? Are you eager for yet another deal that quietly starves government services and weakens the economy? Then you should be in a pretty good mood this morning.

On Tuesday, House Republicans unveiled their proposal to keep the government running past September 30, when the law that currently funds federal operations expires. It would last through December, at which point the parties would have to come up with yet another extension. As expected, the proposal more or less “locks in” funding levels from budget sequestration—in effect, it keeps the cuts that have been reducing Head Start slots, weakening the economy recovery, and generally wreaking havoc. As you may recall, sequestration cuts were never supposed to happen: They were supposed to be so crude and unpleasant, to conservatives and liberals alike, that the two parties would agree on an alternative way of reducing the deficit. But that hasn’t happened, so the cuts have taken effect this year. And if this new House Republican proposal passes, they will stay in place for at least a little while longer.

The House proposal also includes a provision to withhold funds for implementing Obamacare. Again, this is not a surprise. And, like some previous efforts, this one is mostly an effort of political theater. By design, the Senate could strip out the Obamacare defunding and approve everything else in the House leadership proposal. That would leave a “clean” government-funding bill, as House Republican leaders call it, for President Obama to sign. But House Republican leaders have assured anxious conservatives that a real effort to undermine Obamacare will come soon—proabably sometime in early October, when the federal treasury nears its official borrowing limit. At that point, the leaders say, they will refuse to authorize more borrowing unless Obama and the Democrats agree to certain concessions. The demands will include some kind of effort at defunding or delaying Obamacare—quite possibly, by insisting that the Obama administration postpones the individual mandate (the requirement that everybody get health insurance) by one year.

Whether this measure gets through the House remains to be seen. House Democrats aren’t going to supply many (if any) votes for a measure that keeps sequestration cuts, so Boehner and his lieutenants will have to rely on their own caucus. And the caucus, as usual, is not going to go along quietly. Conservatives want to deal with Obamacare now—i.e., before October 1, when people will start buying insurance directly through the law’s new insurance marketplaces. It’s hard to imagine Boehner and the rest of his leadership team would start pushing this bill through the legislative process if they weren’t confident of support. Or maybe it’s not so hard to imagine, given recent history. This wouldn’t be the first time Republican leaders underestimated the extremism of their right-wing members—or overestimated their ability to win them over. Either way, drama seems likely.

But drama in this case would also be a distraction—and a danger. It makes the House leadership bill seem a lot more reasonable than it actually is. The “clean bill” that Boehner and his lieutenants want to pass is extremely conservative. They are presenting it as compromise between what they and their Democratic counterparts want—an effort to govern responsibly, and to avoid the kind of extortion they’ve tried in the past. It is anything but.

You can see it in the numbers. As of this summer, the White House, Senate Democrats, and House Republicans had staked out three different positions on "base discretionary" spending. (That's basically discretionary spending, but without interest and some other special funds.) The White House, in its 2014 budget, called for spending levels of $1.058 trillion during the next fiscal year. It’s part of a ten-year plan that would eliminate the sequester cuts, replace them with a combination of entitlement cuts and new revenue, and add spending for things like universal pre-kindergarten and infrastructure projects. Senate Democrats passed a similar proposal. The original House Republican budget, the one crafted by Paul Ryan, sought $967 billion in total spending.

This new House Republican proposal calls for spending levels of $988 billion. As Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, says, “That number is intolerable.... Why is the compromise between $1058 billion for the Senate, $1058 billion for the White House, and 967 for the House $988 billion?” (Tanden and Michael Linden have a brief out explaining all of this in more detail.) And it’s even less of a compromise than it seems at first blush. The extra spending in the new House proposal—the difference between the $967 billion in the original budget and the $988 billion in the new one—is almost entirely in additional defense spending. That’s no better from a progressive standpoint and it may actually be worse, since the restoration of defense funding erodes the remaining leverage Democrats have.

For the proposal to become law, Senate Democrats would have to approve it. So would Obama. Both have hinted they are ready for a confrontation over sequestration cuts and long-term fiscal priorities. But precisely because the proposal would extend only through December, they seem less likely to fight it, as Salon's Brian Beutler and MSNBC's Suzy Khimm have noted. "It’s already being described as a 'non-controversial' stopgap that’s likely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate," Khimm wrote, "especially given the added time crunch as Congress debates possible intervention in Syria." The danger, of course, is that undoing the cuts will be even more difficult if they've been in place for another two-and-a-half months. 

The House Republican caucus may be crazy and its leadership may be weak. But they’re laying the foundation for a debate that will end with spending cuts that further weaken the economic recovery—and continue to undermine vital government services. 

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow him on twitter @CitizenCohn

Update: I originally had incorrect figures on the White House and Senate Democratic proposals, and used those in Tanden's quote. I've fixed the references.