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Boehner’s Victory

Speaker John Boehner is turning out to be one shrewd negotiator. In the budget agreement that Congress reached late Friday night, he was able to persuade Democrats to agree to unprecedented cuts in spending, on the order of almost $40 billion, despite their not wanting to give up anything. And this happened after Majority Leader Harry Reid said $31 billion in cuts was completely unacceptable. Republicans succeeded in reducing discretionary spending to pre-Obama levels, and they lowered the baseline for next year’s budget, which will result in hundreds of billions of dollars in savings over the next decade.

After two years of double digit increases in domestic discretionary spending, spending will now be reduced by 4 percent. Republican also restored funding for the school voucher program and banned federal funding for abortions in Washington, D.C. Boehner secured a commitment from Reid to have votes in the Senate on repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. He also did a superb job in using the Planned Parenthood rider as a bargaining chip, agreeing to give it up for deeper cuts than Democrats originally wanted. And through it all Boehner kept his caucus remarkably unified.

Friday night’s agreement to avert a government shutdown also needs to be placed within a wider context. During the 111th Congress’s Lame Duck session in December, Republicans were able to get the president to agree to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. What is happening before our eyes is the slow undoing of the Obama economic agenda. It certainly isn’t everything conservatives would hope for, but given that Republicans control only the House, it’s an impressive achievement.

Some conservatives insist on viewing this victory, limited but important, as a strategic defeat, a capitulation, a show of weakness. One could detect in them not simply a willingness to accept a shutdown of the government but an eagerness for one. That would have been a mistake on every level, in part because most of the public doesn’t consider a shutdown of government to be an achievement of any kind.

Nor were these conservatives ever able to explain what principle was at stake. Even they had to concede that the differences under discussion (a few billion dollars in a budget of more than $3.5 trillion) were minuscule. On top of that a shutdown would almost surely have weakened, not strengthened, the GOP’s negotiating hand as lawmakers shift their attention to the next looming budget battles, including (next month) raising the debt limit and debating the budget submitted last week by Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Less than six months after the 2010 mid-term elections and three months after taking majority control of one half of one-third of the three branches of government, we’re seeing a significant reversal in direction. We’ve gone from historic spending increases to historic cuts. There’s still a huge amount of repair work that needs to be done, but the House leadership has, so far, acted in a manner that is both principled and prudent.