Amid the morass of Washington’s endless budget fights there was a moment of sweet revelation last week: House Republicans choked outright when they failed to muster support for the draconian dreams of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the fabled budget hawk who last year ran for vice president on a program of unforgiving fiscal austerity that his colleagues suddenly found too politically risky.
A $44 billion measure based on the tooth-and-claw Ryan blueprint approved by the same House just three months ago had to be yanked from the floor when not enough Republicans showed up to vote yes. An embarrassed leadership was forced to concede that the size of the proposal’s cuts to transportation, housing and urban development had become intolerable even to the fiscal zealots among the rank and file, who no longer had the stomach to walk the austerity talk.
The embarrassment was deserved. The leadership offered hollow excuses about a tight legislative calendar, but the truth was more accurately explained by Harold Rogers, the Republican appropriations chairman and no slouch as a budget hawk. The frustrated lawmaker underlined the moment by noting: “The House has made its choice: sequestration — and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts — must be brought to an end.”
The retreat hardly settled the larger budget wars, which remain noxious. The Republicans have not abandoned their threats to bring government to a halt, to stage-manage another federal debt crisis, and, of course, to fiscally strangle the law of the land known as Obamacare.
But the House’s skittishness at the decidedly unpopular costs of some of the party’s budget strictures presented a revealing tableau of both hypocrisy and weakness: Republicans could not pass their own cramped vision of the future.
The non-vote also laid bare intramural chaos that may or may not educate a sufficient number of Republicans to act more responsibly in the coming budget struggles. For all his candor about “ill-conceived discretionary cuts,” Rogers and others would still like to take the knife to entitlement programs.
This is the last thing President Barack Obama and the Democrats should allow. There is already concern that Obama may not forcefully defend against cuts to Social Security and Medicare that Republicans increasingly seek, even as they lick their self-inflicted sequestration wounds.
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