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The arrogance of the new budget-cutters

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger: New GOP officials totally focused on budget cutting
  • She says their goal may be correct but they are being inflexible on tactics
  • Wisconsin Gov. Walker should have taken a softer line with collective bargaining, she says

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- Well, we said we wanted budget cutters, so that's what we have.

In fact, it's a downright frenzy of fiscal rectitude in Washington. You've heard it all: Every cut matters. No cut is too small. Nothing is off limits, even the unkindest cuts of all. After all, the problem is just too large to put off any longer.

Most convinced of their task are the 87 House Republican newcomers. They are not awestruck by Washington. (A good thing.) They are not remotely humbled by the hallowed and marbled halls. (Still good.) Instead, they come with the arrogance of absolute conviction. (Dangerous.) Here's the mantra: We were sent here to cut the budget, and that is what we intend to do. Period.

In one way, it's a devotion that should be applauded. The freshmen intend to test the notion that Washington can be changed, which we would all welcome. They believe that the previous GOP majority -- the one that came in with Gingrich's revolution in 1994 -- was itself co-opted by the system, and its own power and ran up the deficit. And they are also right about that. (Can anyone say Tom DeLay?)

Their brethren in this new movement for change are many of the newly minted Republican governors. They share the House GOPers' single-minded worship of the budget-knife. Again, in theory, it's a healthy shift. Then what's the problem? It's their way of doing business. It's their conviction that compromise is bad. "They could use a dose of humility," says one senior White House adviser. (And he should know: The White House, arrogant in its own use of the majority, got its humble pie in the midterm elections.)

Consider the noisiest business of the week: Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin now has a sit-in on his front stoop in Madison because -- apparently as part of his budget-cutting mission -- he wants to water down the state's collective bargaining agreements. It wasn't enough that state workers agreed to pay more for their pension and health benefits (which they previously got almost for free). That would have been a great start: Declare victory and fight the rest another day.

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But the public sector unions were just too juicy a political target. They're influential in a special way: Who else gets to help choose the people who set your salary? Sure, they're potent and dominant Democratic political entities with an archaic hold on power. But did Walker have to take on collective bargaining now if he really wants to control spending immediately?

Didn't he know the fight would take a huge -- and potentially damaging -- detour? Of course he did. He wanted to be Ronald Reagan battling the air traffic controllers union. The point: He wanted the fight.

And, by the way, if Gov. Walker were really all about the deficit, why did he just sign a bill that requires a supermajority to raise certain kinds of taxes? If he wants to reduce that red ink, tax hikes should also be on the table. But that would be heresy to the GOP base, so no way.

That's the way the newcomers work. And in the same arrogant vein, do House Republicans have to shut the government down rather than compromise on a temporary plan to fund the government? Their more establishment elders -- who rose from the ruins of the last Newt Gingrich created government shutdown -- would rather avoid it. But they're clearly held hostage by their bulge of freshmen who see compromise as capitulation to the enemy.

Yesterday, House Republicans told Senate Democrats they had a plan to put off a government shutdown for two weeks: Start making some of the $61 billion in House proposed cuts to the budget. It's a non-starter with some Democrats, and it gets the GOP where it wants to be: forcing Democrats to vote against a plan to reduce the deficit.

As for the Democrats, they say that once the public understands what the GOP is cutting, it will turn on them -- and run back into Democrats' arms. It's just more of the same.

The public voted for none of this. They did not vote for the overreach of Gov. Walker. In fact, a recent Gallup poll shows that 61% of the public -- and 63% of independent voters -- oppose the elimination of collective bargaining for public unions. Nor did they vote for a fight over shutting the government down. They just want results.

One of the most level-headed public officials in all of this budget frenzy is Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels. He's a grownup, having served both outside and inside Washington. Yes he also dealt with the public employee union issue, by signing an executive order ending collective bargaining for Indiana state workers, which cost him politically early on in his tenure.

Yet when state Republicans called for a vote on a proposal to weaken unions in the private sector -- and Democratic members started heading for the hills -- Daniels decided to lower the temperature and shelve the bill. "I thought there was a better time and place to have these very important and legitimate issues raised," he said.

Daniels is right. And at a recent speech in Washington before a conservative group, he was right again: "Purity in martyrdom," he warned his GOP audience, "is for suicide bombers."

His proposition is about to be tested.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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