Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican member of the House of Representatives, wants to approve routine and necessary debt-ceiling legislation and then negotiate a bipartisan budget agreement. He understands that politics is the art of the possible, and that politicians often need to compromise to get anything done. On the day before President Biden releases his budget proposal, Bacon's recent interview with Washington Post Live encourages my hopes that Congress may be able to avoid returning to the pattern of 2011-2017 - repeated legislative gridlock and crises in pursuit of massive cuts in poverty-focused programs.
Congress and the President have already allowed pandemic assistance programs to expire, erasing the gains against poverty they achieved in 2020 and 2021. House Republicans seem likely to propose deeper cuts in poverty-focused programs, and extremist House Republicans have already demonstrated that they are willing to obstruct the normal functions of government to get what they want. But things are different now than they were back in 2011.
First, the elections of 2022 were disappointing for the Republican Party, and voters rejected many extreme Republicans. In response, Senate Republicans seem less inclined to confrontation than in the past. Just after last year’s elections, Senator McConnell led Senate Republicans in finalizing negotiations on last year’s appropriations decisions with the Democrats. He opted not to wait until the negotiations would also include the House Republican majority that is now in place.
In contrast, the elections of 2010 were a huge win for the Republican Party and especially for the far-right Tea Party wing of the party. Tea Party members of the House insisted on huge cuts in social spending. The Republican leadership in the House and Senate at the time gave in and made the Tea Party demands and strategy their own. In order to extract concessions, they repeatedly shut the government and also reduced the U.S. government’s credit rating.
Second, although House Republicans are already criticizing the President’s impending budget proposal, they are a long way from developing a budget proposal of their own. As the election for Speaker showed, House Republicans are divided among themselves. Their goals for deficit reduction seem unrealistic, especially given their noisy commitment (during the State of the Union Address) not to reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits. Also, they disagree among themselves about funding for Ukraine. President Biden’s impending budget proposal will reportedly outline a strategy to reduce deficit spending and, at the same time, strengthen Medicare. These goals enjoy broad voter support.
Finally, Don Bacon is certainly not the only Republican who understands that politics is the art of the possible. He is one of 21 Republicans in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and one of 56 members of the Main Street Caucus (conservative, but pragmatic). The Republican chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Glenn Thompson, says he wants to develop the Farm Bill on a bipartisan basis; the Farm Bill is one of the biggest pieces of legislation that is slated to move this year, and it is especially important to the cause of overcoming hunger in the U.S. and worldwide. In the Senate, I have high hopes for the chair and ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and John Boozman (R-AK), and for the chair and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, Patty Murray (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Boozman and Collins are moderate, compassionate conservatives.