WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican leader John Boehner played the right-wing Tea Party against Democrats to win record spending cuts in last week’s budget fight, and now he’ll use the victory to push for even deeper reductions.
In his first big test since the Tea Party helped him become speaker of the House of Representatives, Boehner deftly used the grass-roots movement’s influence to get Democrats to accept $38 billion in spending cuts for the last six months of the 2011 fiscal year without forcing a government shutdown.
The deal left some critics demanding more and questioning his leadership, but Boehner avoided a rebellion from the Tea Party wing of his party in Congress, showed he could stand up to President Barack Obama and made clear he expects more spending cuts on the 2012 budget.
“If you understand how Washington works, John Boehner is looking very good right now,” said Stephen Hess, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Boehner, who became speaker in January, publicly scolded Democrats during the negotiations but aides say he also sought to reason and work with them behind closed doors.
He played a smart game, negotiating in private even as he declared in front of the cameras that there was no daylight between himself and the Tea Party.
Congressional sources say he repeatedly pushed up the price of any compromise with Obama and the Democrats, and refused to agree on any final spending cut tally until the very end.
Democrats, who had earlier rejected $61 billion in proposed Republican cuts as “extreme” and “draconian,” finally accepted $38 billion and there was no government shutdown, which could have threatened the fragile U.S. economic recovery and drawn voter anger, very possibly against Republicans.
Hess said Boehner’s deal-making style is reminiscent of President Ronald Reagan, a Republican icon. “You talk a tough game, but know when to rake in the chips,” Hess said.
The deal, set to be approved by Congress this week, followed the biggest battle on Capitol Hill since Republicans, with Tea Party help, won control of the House of Representatives and made big Senate gains in last year’s elections on promises to slash spending and shrink government.
Under heavy pressure from the Tea Party throughout the negotiations, Boehner was this time able to come out as a winner by using their presence to his advantage.
The pressures will continue, however. Tea Party Patriots, one of the movement’s biggest groups, has called the deal a “hollow victory” and said the cuts are woefully inadequate.
Many Tea Partiers had demanded at least $100 billion in reductions as a much-needed first step to lowering the U.S. deficit, projected to hit $1.4 trillion this year.
“John Boehner doesn’t have stomach for a fight. He’s a go- along, get-along Republican,” said Judson Phillips, a leader of Tea Party Nation, another major group in the movement.
Phillips and others in the Tea Party are so unhappy with Boehner that they say they may push to challenge him in next year’s Republican primary in his home state of Ohio.
Chris Littleton, a Tea Party leader in Ohio, said he doesn’t see a serious challenge of Boehner next year -- at least not yet. But he says Tea Partiers want Boehner to be as aggressive as he can: “They will accept nothing less.”
Dave Wasserman, who tracks House races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said Boehner isn’t in “any immediate danger” and that the fiscal 2011 budget fight could be a “a distant memory” by next year’s election.
But Wasserman said Boehner remains “on a collision course” with the Tea Party and expects the speaker to draw more fire.
“There are always going to be purists who aren’t satisfied, and that’s something that Boehner must deal with,” Wasserman said. “They want everything -- and want it now.”
One Republican lawmaker, asking not to be identified by name, said: “Whatever cuts Boehner gets, some of our members with the Tea Party won’t be happy. I say ‘Let’s move on to the next battle.'”
Indeed, Boehner sees last week’s talks as the first round in a long and largely ideological fight between Republicans and Democrats over spending priorities. He figures the kind of cuts that shift spending for generations will take time.
The deal he brokered will give Boehner momentum, but no guarantee of success, when he demands more spending reductions in the budget for fiscal 2012, which starts on October 1, and in advance of any increase in the U.S. debt limit.
“This is a big victory, but it’s not a knock-out blow” for Boehner, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Caroline State University. “The big fight is Round Two, the 2012 budget.”
The outcome of the spending battle is also certain to influence the 2012 White House race, potentially pushing the eventual Republican nominee to the right to appeal to Tea Party activists and clarifying for independent voters the differences in priorities of Obama and his Republican opponent.
Republicans are already seeking nearly $6 trillion in savings over the next decade, partly by cutting back on government-run health programs Medicare and Medicaid, and Obama and his Democrats will put up a fight.
Dan Ripp of Bradley Woods, a private firm that tracks Washington for investors, said Boehner remains “in a tough spot,” squeezed by the Tea Party and Obama’s Democrats.
With polls showing that the public would have held Democrats and Republicans equally responsible for any shutdown, Ripp said Boehner was smart to cut a deal.
“So he is chipping away at spending,” Ripp said. “He has to do the best he can right now and position himself and his party for the November 2012 elections.”
Editing by Kieran Murray and Eric Beech