To liberals, conservatives walked away from the debt-limit crisis on Tuesday with a killer deal. In exchange for lifting the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion, they received $1 trillion in immediate spending guts, with the promise of at least $1.2 trillion more come December. In Congress, House Progressive Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva typified the left's reaction to the agreement: "This deal trades people's livelihoods for the votes of a few unappeasable right-wing radicals."
Conservatives, however, aren't so sure it was a touchdown. "I think that this is a Republican political victory," says Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, a conservative activist group. "But it's not a conservative victory. If you looked at the positions from which the two parties began the negotiations as the end zones on a football field, then I think this result is somewhere along the 30 yard line, with Republicans close to the Democratic end zone."
Among conservatives and Republicans as a whole, there seems to be a fair amount of ambivalence. Senator Mike Lee of Utah called the deal a "disappointing failure," while Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio worried that "the framework opens the door to dangerous national-security cuts and ... could put tax increases on the table." Despite their apparent victory -- and the distress of liberals -- conservatives aren't satisfied with the outcome: They don't just want cuts, as Lee put it while explaining his vote against the deal, "what we need is fundamental change in the way we spend money in Washington."
For Lee, Hanna, and many other activists and lawmakers, "fundamental change" means a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution like the one found in the "cut, cap, and balance" legislation passed by House Republicans last week. If passed, the amendment would cap federal spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product, and require a two-thirds majority for any future tax increases. The proposal has wide support among Republicans, and most GOP presidential candidates have signed a pledge supporting the proposal, including erstwhile moderate Mitt Romney.
For conservative activists, the aim of a balanced-budget amendment is clear. "[It] is the kind of handcuffs we need to put on Congress to keep them from spending money we don't have," says Barney Keller, communications director for Club for Growth, an anti-tax organization. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, says that his organization "will make a full-scale run on getting this passed."
By design, the balanced-budget amendment envisioned by conservatives would require drastic cuts to entitlements; in its budget plan, which includes the amendment, the House Republican Study Committee calls for Congress to raise the Social Security retirement age to 70, cut Medicaid, repeal the Affordable Care Act, and slash total funding for non-defense government programs by nearly 70 percent over ten years.
In addition, as part of the fight over appropriations in the fall, conservative activists want Republicans to take steps toward the deep cuts outlined in the Study Committee's budget. These would include significant cuts to education, environmental protection regulators, food safety, nutrition assistance, and services for the elderly and people with disabilities.
In the more immediate term, activists want Republicans to block any new revenues by staffing the "super committee" -- a bipartisan deficit-reduction committee established by the debt-limit deal to come up with the additional $1.2 trillion in cuts by December -- with members who will hold the party line on taxes. Names floated for this committee include Tea Party favorites like Jim Jordan, the chair of the Republican Study Committee, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who once helmed the conservative group Club for Growth as its president. Republicans are already gearing up for a fight. "I believe the joint select committee can in fact produce real cuts in spending," House Speaker John Boehner said.
Even with a large GOP majority in the House and a weak Democratic negotiator in the White House, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which these policies become law. Progressives, though, shouldn't rest easy. "In the House," says Phillips, outlining his strategy, "our goal is to make the budget as free-market a bill as possible, so that we are in a good position when it comes to the Senate." Conservatives understand that they don't need to win as much as they need to set the tone of the debate in Washington. If they can do that, then for the second time this year, they'll put Democrats on losing ground.