Could Last Week’s Spending Compromise Fall Apart?

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Update, 3:35 PM

By a 260-167 vote, the bill has passed the House with bipartisan support. HR 1473 will keep the government open through Sept. 30, the end of the 2011 fiscal year. Fifty-nine Republicans broke with their party to vote against the deal, a spike from the 28 who supported the one-week bridge resolution that bought time for lawmakers to craft the bill. Eighty-one Democrats supported it. Without Democratic support, the bill would have failed. 

It was tempting to forget, in the wake of the agreement to avoid a government shutdown, that party leaders don’t govern by fiat. The deal struck Friday night by John Boehner, Harry Reid and President Obama was merely a framework. Since the details were unveiled in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the rumblings of unease that provided a backbeat to the negotiations — drowned out for much of this week by all the shouting about Paul Ryan’s budget and President Obama’s rejoinder — have returned. Yesterday the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the deal will trim federal outlays by $352 million during the remainder of the fiscal year, which is less than 1% of the $38 billion splashed across triumphant press releases. The comparatively meager figure heightens the risk that House Tea Partyers and deficit hawks, who were already irked by the compromise, could rebel in large enough numbers that John Boehner is forced to find a cohort of moderate Democrats to push the deal over the finish line.

“A lot of guys will flip,” says a House Republican aide, who expects Boehner will find 218 members to pass the CR, but that the margin will be “really narrow. They’re whipping hard for votes.” Segments of the conservative base have declared open war against the heretics who waffle on their commitment to cost-cutting. RedState’s Eric Erickson argued in a blog post this morning that Republicans who vote to cut just $352 million –“that’s million with an ‘m’“– should be “driven into the street by the Tea Party movement and horsewhipped.” For his part, Tea Party Patriots’ co-chair Mark Meckler suggested, as he often does, that GOPers aligning behind this deal or a debt-limit hike face the possibility of a primary.

At a press conference this morning, Boehner allowed that the CBO estimate had “caused some confusion.” In an argument tailored t0 reassure his members, Boehner said the debate over federal spending in Washington had “shifted 180 degrees.” A number of House freshmen have said they’ll support the compromise as the opening ante in the long, high-stakes poker game that’s just getting started. Even the deal’s skeptics are eager to close the book on the CR and move onto bigger skirmishes over the 2012 budget, which the House is debating this morning, and a debt-limit issue that both parties are portraying as “Armageddon.”

It’s hard to predict exactly how House Democrats, who were frozen out of the negotiations over the 2011 spending bill, will come down. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who snapped at a senior White House official Wednesday for failing to solicit her caucus’s input, said she hadn’t made up her mind about the bill. “It’s pretty evident the House Democrats were not a part of that agreement,” Pelosi said. “I feel no ownership over that or any responsibility to it, except that we do not want to shut down the government.” Even if Boehner’s hard-liners defect en masse, he should still be able to nab a number of Democrats, Pelosi acknowledged. “I’ve always thought that if he didn’t get to 218 on his own, there would be Democrats who could put it over the top,” she said, adding that “the fact that many of us have an unease with what’s in there should signal to Republicans” that the pact is favorable to the GOP. But a House Democratic aide predicted to the Huffington Post that as few as 50 Democrats would support the measure. Pelosi said Democrats are not whipping their members, but minority whip Steny Hoyer is supporting the deal. Moderate Democrats seem likely to follow his lead.

Even if it seems poised to pass, a deal that seemed almost an afterthought amid the hoopla this week could wind up a lot closer that most people anticipated. Stay tuned.