Since being re-elected to the Senate and re-elected as majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has made a couple of things clear. There will be no cuts to Social Security. A ban on earmarks, or even a moratorium, would "take away power from the legislative branch," and it would be the "wrong thing to do."
He has not been able to convince his fellow Democrats. President Obama's State of the Union speech included a pledge to veto any legislation that "comes to my desk with earmarks inside," and some soft language about entitlements that, nonetheless, feinted at Social Security reform.
These comments got less attention last week than Obama's ballast about a "Sputnik moment" or ways to "win the future." Unlike the buzzwords, these comments stuck. Last week, members of the Senate's Tea Party Caucus pointed to the State of the Union to argue, in the words of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that the president had been "co-opted" by the Tea Party. On Tuesday, Democrats finished the job.
First, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced a package of spending cuts more draconian than anything Reid, or Democrats, had agreed to. The "Commitment to American Prosperity Act," co-sponsored by eight Republicans, would mandate that spending be driven down from 24.7 percent to 20.6 percent of GDP by 2021. To do so, it would authorize the Office of Management and Budget to "make evenly distributed, simultaneous cuts throughout the federal budget." Social Security, said McCaskill, would be "on the table," ready for the kind of means testing that Democrats had rejected for decades. This was literally the opposite of what Reid had promised.
"Do I want Social Security to be there for my kids and my grandkids?" said McCaskill in a press conference launching the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "Absolutely. Will I fight like a tiger to make sure that we protect Social Security? I absolutely will. But should we be buying prescription drugs for Warren Buffett with federal tax dollars? Well, that's just nuts! I mean, seriously! Can we afford to be writing checks for multimillionaires' prescription drugs in this country? That's just silly."*
Reid spoke to reporters about two hours after McCaskill proposed this. "I have said many times," he said, "that I will do everything that I can in throwing my legislative body in front of any efforts to weaken Social Security. Social Security has not contributed one penny to the debt, and as I've said before, people should leave Social Security alone."
This was a good rebuttal, sort of. But just as Reid was saying this, the Senate Appropriations Committee announced that it would do the unthinkable and agree to a two-year ban on earmarks, the senatorial carve-outs of spending bills that had been, for decades, the reason for getting on these committees in the first place.
"I continue to support the constitutional right of members of Congress to direct investments to their states and districts under the fiscally responsible and transparent earmarking process that we have established," said appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, echoing Reid. Alas: "Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law."
Let's remember the context for all of this. Every week, or every day, some political observer looks at the Tea Party or the conservative movement and sees the stirring of a Republican civil war. Over the weekend, the New York Times sorted the tea leaves in Indiana, Maine, and Utah and reported that the movement was figuring out which Republicans to target and how to target them in 2012.
That's a sideshow. The conventional wisdom back in November was that conservative activists had gone too far and cost their party enough seats to keep the Senate in Harry Reid's hands. (To be fair, the conventional wisdom transmitted from editorial pages and into the minds of Republicans like Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.) Sure, a few Tea Party candidates blew it. They're settling; they're completely defining the agenda of the Democratic Senate.
McCaskill's "CAP Act" is a prime example of how this works. Two weeks ago, the ultra-conservative Republican Study Committee released an ambitious plan to cut $2.5 trillion from the budget in 10 years, by forcing spending back down to the level it was in 2006. Democrats rejoiced; here was the GOP agreeing to the kind of ugly, job-killing cuts they'd previously decided not to get specific about.
Then came the McCaskill-Corker proposal. The progressive-leaning Center on Budget Priorities scored the bill with the horror of a too-young tween reading an early Stephen King novel. "Limiting spending to an historical average of some kind has been a longstanding goal of very conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation," wrote CBP's Paul Van de Water. "Historical spending levels are not a realistic or appropriate goal for the future." In another analysis, CBP's James Horney assessed that the CAP Act could slash $4.5 trillion from the budget, $2 trillion more than the RSC plan that Democrats had blanched at.
Plenty of legislation gets introduced in the Senate and goes nowhere. The CAP Act might join those ghostly ranks. But it's co-sponsored by McCaskill, and that means something. Elected in a 2006 squeaker, she is on the ballot next year and polls within single digits of Republican challengers. She endorsed Barack Obama for president in January 2008, when he was the candidate of reasonable moderates, the sort of people who would later start No Labels. She voted for every Democratic priority of 2009 and 2010, despite occasionally voicing objections like this. Still, she's aligned herself with budget cuts and entitlement panic over the arguments of Harry Reid.
Does this mean that Democrats will roll over when House Republicans hand over their budget? Not necessarily. They do enjoy campaigning against Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's long-term cuts. They know how to demagogue anything that goes after popular programs.
There have to be limits, though. Some Tea Party leaders are convinced that Democrats are catering to them. Some Democrats are fulfilling demands, even if only in word, that those leaders have been making for years. Later this year, Senate Democrats will get the House's budget and try to restore funding for the president's priorities. Unless everyone forgets the way they've been talking about spending, that's going to be tricky. For a bunch of people who are allegedly fighting among themselves, Tea Partiers have become quite good at determining what Congress can get away with.
Correction, Feb. 2, 2011: This article originally misspelled the last name of Warren Buffett in a quote from Claire McCaskill. (Return to the corrected sentence.)