WASHINGTON — On a drab, damp Thursday lunch hour, Michele Bachmann tried to light a fire into what has to this point been growing opposition from the right against a budget deal that she and other leaders in the Tea Party Caucus have described as insufficient.
“I think it’s time to get serious, don’t you?” she asked a crowd of perhaps 200 to 300 Tea Party activists. “And I think that cutting $61 billion is just a starting point, it’s not the goal,” Bachmann said to applause. “Because taking a vote to repeal Obamacare is a good start, it can’t just be our goal, we have to actually repeal it and actually defund it.”
Inside the nearby Capitol building, however, negotiations are ongoing on a budget for the remainder of Fiscal 2011 (through end of September) that doesn’t include any of Bachmann or her allies’ major demands.
The dollar amount of cuts negotiators are working with is about $30 billion less than the $100 billion Tea Party leaders consider a minimum for acceptable cuts. Rescinding funding for the health reform law isn’t on the table, and neither is defunding Planned Parenthood, despite the signs outside encouraging both.
Late Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden told reporters that Democrats and Republicans had agreed in principle to a number, though cautioned that no deal had been reached yet. Sen. Harry Reid confirmed that number — $73 billion below President Obama’s proposed FY 2011 budget — Thursday morning.
Speaker John Boehner stressed this morning that there has been “no agreement on numbers” and that “nothing will be agreed to unless everything is agreed to.”
“The sooner we can get this finished, the sooner we can get onto the really big issues facing our country,” Boehner said, adding that it’s time to come to an agreement with the Senate on spending. “Our goal is to cut spending, not to shut down the government.”
“We’ll continue talking and continue working to find a middle ground,” said Reid, his counterpart in the Senate. “I hope an agreement can be reached. But it will not come on the backs of middle-class families and the jobs they need. And it will not come if the other side continues to insist on unreasonable and unrealistic cuts.
“I appreciate Speaker Boehner’s participation in these talks,” Reid said. “I’m sure it’s not easy trying to negotiate with the Tea Party screaming in his right ear.”
In anticipation of the protest, Boehner insisted he was doing his utmost to cut spending, seemingly conceding the point (without saying so directly) that cuts wouldn’t get near the levels that the right flank is demanding.
“I’m well aware — there are a lot of people in Washington who want to do a lot of different things. We promised the American people that we would cut spending, and that is what we’re doing. We are going to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get.
“We control one half of one third of the government here in Washington,” Boehner said. “We can’t impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts we can get an agreement to, and fight for spending limitations too.”
Strength in numbers
Bachmann’s call is one that carries exactly as much weight as the number of people who support it, and today’s Tea Party rally — the first of its kind on Capitol Hill since the 2010 elections — was far smaller than in years past.
Inside the Capitol, whip counts vary on exactly how much support a hard-line stance has.
“The six who voted no on the two-week CR became 54 that voted no on the three-week CR, is that number [now] bigger or smaller? I think the number’s bigger than 54 now,” said Iowa Rep. (and key Bachmann ally) Steve King. “If I were the [House GOP’s] whip team I’d know, but they’re not telling me.”
Even if the Tea Party flank does recruit more members to the “no” column — and the assertion that they have is a point of some dispute — Republican leadership aides privately expressed confidence that they’d have more than enough votes to pass a compromise plan with billions in additional cuts through the House, averting a government shutdown.
Minnesota’s three other Republican members each voted yes on both continuing resolutions, and so far none have come out and said they’ll switch their votes.
“I think that we want to be careful to try hard not to shut down government, and we want to get big, big cuts,” said Rep. John Kline. “I think what we’re talking about is tactics, and Michele is saying ‘let’s draw in the sand’, you know, and stake out a position. It’s perfectly OK with me if she does that.”
However, Kline said he worries about what a protracted shutdown would do for military families, especially junior enlistees deployed abroad whose families may be living paycheck to paycheck.
In public, Republicans seem content to have this discussion civilly. In the course of her eight-minute remarks, Bachmann never once mentioned Boehner or any other leader by name.
Rather, her named criticisms were reserved for top-tier Democrats like President Obama, Reid and, now that he’s taken to labeling her kind as “extreme,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
The closest Bachmann came to anything near criticism of her own party came in response to a question asked before her speech of whether a compromise that doesn’t include a full rollback of health reform implementation funding could be acceptable.
“Every member will have to decide what’s acceptable for them,” she replied. “For me, one of the strongest things I need to see is a defunding of Obamacare.” After the word Obamacare she was hustled to the stage, where she began her pep talk.
For his part, Boehner said he welcomed the Tea Party rally that aimed in part to force his hand further to the right than it could go while still finding one on the left side of the aisle to shake on a deal.
“Listen, I’m glad that they’re here, and I’m glad that they’re engaged in the process,” Boehner said. “You know, I said over a year ago that we should talk with the Tea Party folks, that we should listen to them and that we should walk amongst them. I don’t feel any different about them today.”
“Any time Americans want to engage in their government — and today I believe we have more Americans engaged in their government than any time in history — then we should welcome that.”