- - Wednesday, December 11, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Can Mitch McConnell rescue the conservatives? The senior senator from Kentucky leads an increasingly irrelevant Republican minority in the Senate, but he is the key to bringing down the newly struck budget deal that gives Democrats all they want, and then some. The Republican leaders in the House have surrendered early, giving the Democrats a $65 billion spending card for letting them get home in time for Christmas. They still believe in Santa Claus.

In his October dust-up with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mr. McConnell insisted the Tea Party was wrong to shut down the government because it endangered the spending caps and the sequestration. It turned out the shutdown didn’t do much damage. Chastened Republicans preserved only the status quo, and President Obama and congressional Democrats tasted blood. They realized they could have it all, and now they might get it.

Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Republican budget chef, cooked up a deal with Sen. Patty Murray, his Senate Democratic counterpart, that blows through the budget caps with a $65 billion spending spree. Mr. Ryan is a bean-counter, after all, and bean-counters like deals if only to tidy things.

The deal offsets today’s spending spree with “savings” of $28 billion that won’t actually take effect until the year 2022. Billions more are “saved” through “reducing fraud.” Everybody’s against fraud, so rather than shut down a useless government program and face blowback from its beneficiaries, the deal expands useless programs with an empty promise that the lax oversight of the past will be replaced with good stewardship and vigilance. Sure it will.

“There’s a recurring theme in Washington budget negotiations,” observes Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. “It’s ‘I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.’” The new taxes take effect immediately. The irritating blue-gloved bureaucrats at the Transportation Security Administration will double the “fee” added to airline tickets to pay for groping and intimate photography services. This $12.6 billion tax increase, paid by air travelers, is counted as “savings.”

Perhaps the only positive provision is a stipulation that the government can’t pay a private contract employee more than $487,000 a year. That’s so reassuring. Only the big spenders at the White House could celebrate this budget deal as a “win for the economy and budget discipline.”

Mr. McConnell thus gets his opportunity to do something big. He has championed sequestration as the only effective means of restraining Washington’s spending spree. Last year, the across-the-board cuts accomplished an honest-to-goodness 2.4 percent reduction in federal spending. But the federal beast is not on a starvation diet. Even with the reduction, the government is still spending 16 percent more today than in George W. Bush’s final and most profligate year in office.

Mr. McConnell won’t want to see this meager bit of progress tossed out the window. The House Republican leaders have only one goal. They want to campaign next year only on Obamacare, and they’re willing to add yet more to the $17.2 trillion debt in the misguided belief that it will help win the 2014 midterm elections. But it’s bold and unapologetic leadership that actually wins elections.

It’s up to the Kentucky senators — the Tea Party outsider and the Washington insider — to persuade their colleagues that boldness is the only persuader. If Republicans won’t stand up against another tax-and-spending spree, how can they persuade anyone that it’s worth the bother to elect another sell-out Republican?

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