The Republicans are divided over how to respond to the administration's budget -- do they want to argue over provisions in the document or present their own alternative? The Senate caucus prefers the former option, the House the latter. But the institutional imperatives that led the factions to their preferred choices reveal the hollow center of the GOP approach to fiscal policy.

Look at it this way: In the Senate, recent experience tells us, moderate Republicans working together with moderate Democrats still have enough power to move the legislative agenda. Anything they say will be taken seriously. But they are offering a group of unserious priorities: they don't have a plan to increase revenue, even by letting the Bush tax cuts expire, and they don't have a plan to decrease spending, except by cutting programs like Medicare or Social Security that are popular and increasingly necessary. They don't want to deal with global warming at all, and they don't have a strong alternative in the area of health care reform. They're skeptical of cutting subsidies to the student loan industry and agribusiness, but they are opposed to any further funding to keep the financial sector from going under. If the Senate GOP tried to assemble that collection of ideas into a budget, not only would it blow up the deficit, it wouldn't address the majority of the American public's concerns. The price of power is having to make difficult choices, and Senate Republicans aren't willing to do that if they can armchair quarterback the president's plan.

Meanwhile, in the House, Republicans are virtually powerless by dint of the chamber's majoritarian organization. And that has repercussions; as Dave Weigel recently e-mailed, "Minority status means never having to explain what the fuck you're talking about." This consideration explains, for instance, why House Republicans still touted their tax-cuts only stimulus plan, which they claim was based on White House economist Christina Romer's research, even after Romer explained why their ideas were wrong. The House GOP can argue with impunity that the Bush administration's "high" capital gains taxes are the real obstacle to financial recovery, or embrace long-discredited economic theories, all because observers know their ideas won't be part of legislation.

All this is why I was not surprised to see House Minority Leader John Boehner making the classic Kinselyan gaffe of noting a politically unfortunate truth. Speaking of his fellow Republicans, Boehner observed that "they ought to get the idea out of their minds that they are legislators. But what they can be is communicators." I imagine the DCCC is looking forward to putting that in an attack ad -- "REPUBLICAN LEADER URGES GOP TO STOP WORKING FOR AMERICAN PEOPLE" -- but Boehner is quite correct: their lack of power makes House Republican's first job public relations, and because they won't be actually making policy for two years at the earliest, and more likely much longer than that, they can make any wild claims they want in pursuit of political victories. Meanwhile, in the Senate, the moderate Republicans are going to have to walk their talk, and know that their ideal budget is both politically unpopular and fiscally irresponsible. They'll settle for sniping at the Obama plan in the hopes of gaining symbolic concessions, try to stymie cap and trade outright and be forced to engage the administration on health care and education reform.

Of course, this works for the administration. The senate-side GOP knows all too well they will be tarred with the nutty ideas of their House colleagues, hence the public disagreement between the chambers. Look forward to Robert Gibbs laying whatever the House comes up with (hints: tax cuts, spending freeze) on Judd Gregg's doorstep and seeing the patrician New Englander recoil in horror.

-- Tim Fernholz

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