From Kimberley Strassel at The WSJ:
The GOP passes its first big spending test—barely.
Some Americans might be under the impression that they just watched a lame duck Congress engage in a lame-o budget fight. But Senate Republicans' stunning defeat last night of the Democrats' omnibus spending bill was anything but boring.
What our great nation just watched was the Democratic Party preview its political strategy for the next two years. It also watched a united Senate GOP defeat that approach, though not before a handful of Republicans considered walking straight into the Democratic trap. The whole episode was an early peek at the GOP's biggest challenge going forward.
That challenge is, as it always is, spending. Republicans lost in 2006 primarily because of their profligacy, and they won this year primarily because they swore off that profligacy. It's that simple—and don't think Democrats don't know it. President Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi understand that the surest, quickest and most delicious way to undermine their opponents is to tempt them into renouncing their own promises of fiscal responsibility. The added beauty is that Democrats continue to get exactly what they want: bigger government.
This week Democrats unveiled a $1.2 trillion omnibus, legislation as pure an insult to the electorate as it gets. It was a 1,924-page monstrosity that nobody had time to read. It took 11 spending bills that Democrats couldn't be bothered to pass individually and crammed them into one oozing ball of pork and bad policy, going beyond even the obscene budget of 2010.
Yet to this legislative Frankenstein Democrats carefully attached the spenders' equivalent of crack cocaine. To wit, omnibus author and Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye dug up earmark requests that Senate Republicans had made in the past year (prior to their self-imposed ban) and, unasked, included them in the bill. He lavished special, generous attention—$1 billion worth of it—on some reliable GOP earmark junkies: Mississippi's Thad Cochran got $512 million; Utah's Bob Bennett, $226 million; Maine's Susan Collins, $114 million; Missouri's Kit Bond, $102 million; Ohio's George Voinovich, $98 million; and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, $80 million.
The effect of this dope—just sitting there, begging for a quick inhale—on earmarkers was immediate. Two seconds into the sweats and shaking hands, nine Republicans let Mr. Reid know they'd be open to this bill.
Democrats were euphoric. An omnibus victory, they knew, would subject Republicans to an ugly PR hit. True, the omnibus would pass primarily with Democratic votes. But the headlines would focus on the handful of Republicans who provided the final votes and undermined the GOP's spending message. GOP support for this bill would also tarnish what goodwill Republicans earned for their self-imposed earmark ban.
Better yet, Republican earmarkers would be providing President Obama and Democrats a giant policy victory, undercutting House Republicans before they even got the gavel. Everyone in Washington understands that the most powerful tool that Republicans gained in this election was control over spending bills. The GOP cannot repeal ObamaCare, but it can starve it to death. This is why incoming Speaker John Boehner has been fixated on spending-process reforms that will maximize the GOP's ability to influence administration programs. It's why incoming Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has spent months gearing up for this battle.
It's also why Mr. Inouye made sure his spending omnibus included more than $1 billion to ramp up ObamaCare—including money to enforce the law's new insurance mandates, to implement Medicaid expansion, to fund some of the 159 new entities created under the law, and even to create a public health slush fund. Republican votes would have abetted ObamaCare and tied House GOP hands until September, when the omnibus ran out.
That didn't happen, but only because Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell accomplished a mini Christmas miracle. The Kentuckian devoted yesterday to making the arguments—both principled and political—to the Spending Nine. He was ultimately persuasive enough, and the earmarkers wise enough, to pull back their support. A very unhappy Mr. Reid was forced to yank the omnibus last night. He will now work with Republicans on a short-term funding bill, a process that should give the incoming GOP House far more influence over upcoming spending decisions.
And the lesson for Republicans (yet again)? Unity and principle rule. Mr. McConnell held his members against ObamaCare, and won an election. He held them on taxes, and forced President Obama to help the economy. And this week, by holding together on something equally straightforward—a promise of fiscal responsibility—Republicans turned what could have been a black eye into a bitter humiliation for Mr. Reid and other supporters of an irresponsible spending blowout.
The good news is that the GOP will be even better positioned to reject the lures next year. Mr. McConnell is getting a batch of more fiscally conservative senators whose numbers will give him some breathing room. And the House is hoping its spending reforms will deny its members even the temptation of pork.
The White House and Democrats will continue to sing the siren song of spending. Every time they do, Republicans would be wise to remember the sweet victory against this omnibus.