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Republicans are on the right course for next fiscal fight

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Jan. 22, 2013: Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the House GOP leadership speak to reporters after a closed-door meeting on avoiding a potential debt crisis at the Capitol in Washington.AP

Giddy from hearing perhaps the most liberal inaugural speech in a lifetime, many liberals are celebrating the Republicans’ retreat on the debt ceiling. The House Republicans’ feint may be working. 

In actuality, the plan to push back the debt ceiling by three months and attach a “No Budget, No Pay” provision to the legislation is one of their smartest moves in recent times. It simultaneously positions Republicans on firmer ground to advance their goal of achieving spending reductions and deprives Democrats of being simultaneously for something and against it.

Jonathan Weisman from the New York Times is one example of those who mistakenly believe that the only choices available to Republicans are to “accommodate the president’s agenda on immigration, guns, energy and social programs and hope to take the liberal edge off issues dictated by the White House, or dig in as the last bulwark against a re-elected Democratic president and accept the political risks of that hard-line stance.” Rather, House Republicans are doing exactly what they should be doing – picking the best terrain upon which to push for their goal of reduced spending.

Sun Tzu advised those doing battle “When you come to a hill or a bank, occupy the sunny side, with the slope on your right rear.” When evaluating their options for which bank of the hill to occupy, Republicans had three choices:

•Debt-ceiling

•Sequester

•Expiration of a continuing resolution to fund government operations

They rightly assessed that President Obama’s ability to paint their refusal to raise the debt ceiling as not paying your credit card bills for items you already chose to buy as the gloomiest side of the hill. Pushing it back three months allows them to preserve this option for the future if necessary, while occupying the more beneficial slopes of the hill with which to advance their goals.

Their action on the debt ceiling keeps them driving the agenda.

Forgetting the adage that the best defense is a good offense, House Republicans chose to hand the ball to the Senate during the last debt ceiling standoff and the fiscal cliff. As a result, they now face more defense cuts and more tax increases than likely would have been the case if tea party Republicans had closed ranks behind House Speaker John Boehner. This time the Speaker has found a way to unify his conference around a plan.

The “No Budget, No Pay” provision serves two critical roles. It provides a much-needed “sweetener” to garner tea party votes and creates a common-sense peg for the GOP to frame the often-mystifying budget and debt ceiling processes. Many American adults do not understand the nuances of budgets, appropriations, and debt limits. An elementary school student can grasp the concept of “no work, no pay.” The approach also makes it difficult politically for Senate Democrats to vote against the plan.

Any politician knows the risk of running against an opponent without a voting record. Darwin observed that it is neither the strongest nor the smartest that survive, but the most flexible. By not passing a budget in almost four years, the Senate can claim to be for cutting spending while lambasting those who try to do so. 

President Obama offered an example of this dual-track strategy during his inaugural by supporting spending cuts saying, “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit,” while creating a straw man to stand in for his Republican critics who, in his words, espouse “the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

The three-month plan will put each side’s future fiscal plans in writing. That will allow voters to decide which path they prefer.

The contest between those who seek to rein in spending and those who wish to preserve the status quo has only just begun. Conservatives will need both skill and luck to achieve their goal. There will be few opportunities for missteps. However, by choosing the sunny side of the hill, House Republicans have increased the likelihood that their next step will be on firm ground.

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).