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House conservatives determined to slash spending relent on compromise deal

From Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
updated 9:11 PM EDT, Wed August 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "There's a time to fight and there's a time to not fight," says Idaho GOP freshman
  • "We're not going to win and we're just going to look bad," he adds
  • The agreement announced by Boehnerand Reid extends federal funding through March
  • The deal came after a contentious debate on Capitol Hill

Washington (CNN) -- A congressional deal announced this week by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid would extend current government spending levels for six months, putting off threats of a government shutdown until after the November election decides the makeup of a new House and Senate.

The compromise denies conservative House Republicans -- including tea party-backed freshmen -- their strongest negotiating tool to enact the spending cuts they promised when running for Congress in 2010. But rather than opposing the deal, conservative legislators said Wednesday they were the ones pushing for it.

The strategic shift reflects the House GOP leadership's opposition to more budget brinksmanship that generates public hostility, as well as the recognition by the conservative freshmen that there was a limit to what they could achieve after the Democratic-led Senate has stalled most the spending cuts they passed in the House.

Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, who participated in a series of meetings on legislative strategy over several weeks with House and Senate conservatives, told CNN that "there's a time to fight and there's a time to not fight."

Conservatives have lost every spending fight in Congress in the last year, Labrador said, so the feeling was that "the best option was to take the issue (the spending bill) off the table."

The GOP freshman also blamed members of his own party for not holding a harder line.

"We're not going to win, because there are too many Republicans who have already said they are unwilling to fight," Labrador complained. "We're not going to win and we're just going to look bad."

That note of resignation was echoed by other House Republican freshmen elected with tea party support because of their pledge to change how Washington works. Once in office, these conservatives focused their energy on measures to significantly cut back or dismantle federal programs.

Current funding for federal agencies runs out at the end of September, and the agreement announced Tuesday by Boehner, R-Ohio, and Reid, D-Nevada, extends federal funding through March at the level that was set in last summer's debt deal -- $1.047 trillion.

That deal came after a contentious debate on Capitol Hill with the GOP and Democrats negotiating on a series of spending cuts as part of an agreement to raise the nation's debt limit. The partisan wrangling up until the final deadline left financial markets shaken and illustrated how the sharply divided Congress struggled to get their business done.

Another freshman Republican, Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, voted against that deal and pushed Republican leaders for a funding bill that came in at a lower level -- $1.028 trillion. But he told reporters this week that he's now willing to "swallow hard" to accept the six-month bill compromise at the higher spending level because he's convinced he'll get a better deal next March.

"I want to put the funding of the government in the first 100 days of the Romney administration, which I believe is forthcoming," Duncan said Tuesday.

Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, the House GOP's deputy whip, said the conservative legislators -- like everyone else on Capitol Hill -- now agree that any talk of forcing a government shutdown through budget brinksmanship wasn't productive for the institution or good for the economy.

"I think there's a comfort level around removing the pressure point," Roskam told CNN.

Another point some of the conservative legislators pressed was their belief that anything that came out of eleventh-hour negotiations in the lame-duck session of Congress after the November vote could be significantly worse than the six-month spending deal reached by Boehner and Reid. Conservatives also believe that agreeing to a stopgap deal now takes some leverage away from Reid to try to use the threat of a shutdown to extract items from House Republicans on other year-end fights on tax breaks and scheduled cuts to defense programs they oppose.

Labrador said if you looked at previous lame-duck sessions, "there been terrible deals that come out of it."

"Both parties are under the gun and they make bad decisions that affect the American people for years to come," he said.

Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who has broken with GOP leaders on previous spending deals, supports the six-month spending resolution. He said settling on the higher spending level was "an enormous gift" by House conservatives, but added that "lame duck is a bad way to make decisions."

After the November election, there could be a group of defeated lawmakers and possibly a defeated president in the White House deciding major policy issues in the lame-duck session.

"If you win an election, it's usually better to wait for reinforcements to arrive," Huelskamp said.

In addition to cutting spending, House conservatives have made repealing or defunding Obamacare a major priority. A group of conservatives recently told House leaders they would oppose any legislation that included money to implement the health care law passed by Democrats in 2010, but agreeing to the six-month spending deal meant they were giving in on that objective.

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, a physician who was elected in the 2010, said although he still doesn't support any money for Obamacare, he thinks the House GOP has made the point already by passing over 30 bills to repeal or defund the health care law.

None have any chance of winning Senate approval, prompting Harris to ask reporters: "How many times do you expect us to bang our head against the wall?"

CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this report.

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