Budget Winners, Losers And The Next Battle

While this round of the budget fight is over, the bigger battle between Congressional Democrats and Republicans is just beginning. Host Liane Hansen discusses the political implications of the federal budget deal with NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

While this round of the budget fight is over, the bigger battle between congressional Democrats and Republicans is just beginning. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us to explain the implications of the budget deal. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: There's been a lot of talk about what each side had to give up to reach a deal. But examine this from a different angle. Did anyone come out ahead?

LIASSON: Yes. I think the key to any kind of a bipartisan negotiation is that the result should be something that each side can spin to its own troops as a victory. And I think there were elements of that in this deal. Certainly, Speaker Boehner kept the White House at bay until the last minute. One of the biggest goals for him was to prove to his Tea Party freshmen that he was one of them.

He is the one who came up with the number in the mid-30s from the beginning. His Tea Party made him double that number, and ask for $61 billion in cuts. But in the end, he said he would fight for as much as he could get, and his troops think that he did. So it proves that he can lead his caucus, and they will not fracture under him. So I think he comes out strengthened.

President Obama always wins when he presides over a bipartisan compromise. That's his brand - bridging differences. And the White House believes that that's what independent voters - which is one of the key groups that he's looking at, as he gets ready to run for re-election - likes it when the president is compromising and working with the other side. So that helped him.

HANSEN: So if the president - who's the leader of his party - strengthened his position, do Democrats benefit by extension?

LIASSON: Not necessarily. And if you look at the kind of reactions among Democrats, they are the ones who are complaining and feeling like they've been sold out. Jesse Jackson Jr., for instance, congressman from Illinois, said that the president kept the government open on the back of the poor and the disenfranchised.

So I think that in this case, because the Democrats are in the minority in the House of Representatives, they are in the weakest position right now. They don't always benefit when the president does. And the big question for them is, when we get to these other fights down the road, will the president give up too much; will the Republicans be emboldened?

HANSEN: Talk about the road going forward. What are the next political battles?

LIASSON: Well, there are a lot of them, and they're coming in rapid succession. First, sometime in early May, we're going to breach the debt ceiling, which means that Congress has to vote to allow the United States to borrow more money. And a lot of Republicans have said that they are not going to vote for that unless they get some more concessions.

Mitch McConnell, who's the Republican leader in the Senate, has said he's going to be demanding much steeper cuts in spending in order to vote for the debt ceiling. In addition, you've got the fight over the fiscal 2012 budget.

The budget committee chairman in the House, Paul Ryan, has put out a very severe plan, according to Democrats - where he really cuts not just domestic discretionary spending but also privatizes Medicare, changes entitlements. That's going to be a mammoth battle. That's coming later in the year as the House and Senate pass appropriations bills.

You're also going to get debates about defunding the health-care law. And the big question for me is, what impact did this negotiation have on those future ones? In other words, what did each side learn about the other one over the past few weeks? Will they be more willing to work together, or will they be emboldened to just hunker down and play even more high-stakes brinksmanship?

HANSEN: So do you think it will be possible for either side to deal with the other in good faith?

LIASSON: Well, that's the question. We don't know whether the residue from this negotiation is distrust - because both sides are saying that the other guy reneged on deals and bargained in bad faith - or, as some people in the White House are saying, this was a moment over a period of weeks when the president and the speaker of the House spent more time together, either in person or on the phone, than they had ever done before.

They were able to take the measure of each other; they were serious. The hot rhetoric in public did not reflect the seriousness of the private negotiations. And the White House is suggesting that the president and John Boehner can work together. Maybe that's a good sign for the future, going forward.

HANSEN: As you said, Mara, the debate over the debt ceiling is the first one up. Why is that important, and how do you think it will play out?

LIASSON: Well, it's extremely important because if the United States defaults on its debt and stops paying its obligations, it would be a real crisis in the financial markets. We'd look as if we were like Spain and Portugal and Greece, and that has never happened in the United States' history.

Now the question is, if the Republicans threaten to default on the debt, it could give the president a stronger hand here. But the Republicans are demanding deeper spending cuts, and more action on the real drivers of the debt and deficit, in exchange for their votes on the debt ceiling. So the question is, would the two sides be able to come together and at least agree on a process to deal with the real drivers of the debt and deficit - which, of course, are entitlements; they're certainly not domestic discretionary spending, which was the subject of this last debate, on the 2011 budget.

So I think the question there is, will the president get involved earlier in that debt ceiling debate than he did in this CR negotiation, where he really did jump in only at the last minute.

HANSEN: NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Liane.

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