The GOP's Opening Argument: Cut Spending, Cut Spending, Cut Spending

In 1994, the GOP stormed the House with a sweeping policy platform, which it largely failed to enact. In 2010, the GOP storms the House with a simpler message: Cut spending, the end.

The new Republican House majority is planning a series of votes that most newspapers are describing as "symbolic," which is newspaperspeak for "not worth paying much attention to." There are plans to vote on a total repeal of the health care overhaul before the end of the month. There are plans to vote on rescinding, or re-claiming, money allocated by the Recovery Act to high-speed rail. There are plans to cut $25 million from the House operating budget, a five percent cut that will stimulate double-sided printing in committee offices.

These votes won't get past a Democratic Senate and a presidential veto. But the GOP has already succeeded -- in changing the mood in Washington. The baseline assumption on Capitol Hill is that spending cuts must happen. The question is no longer if, but how and when.

White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee told ABC on Sunday that the president will outline specific budget cuts in his State of the Union speech at the end of the month. Add it to the pile. Obama has already said he will freeze federal government salaries at their current level for two years, shaving an estimated $60 billion off the deficit over the decade. In the days before last year's State of the Union address, the president proposed a three-year spending freeze on most domestic programs. That proposal, if followed through, would save Washington and taxpayers more than $250 billion.

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If spending cuts have become an accepted reality among electeds, they have not won over many voters. In a AP poll in November, 46 percent of respondents said increased spending on health, education and energy were higher priorities than the deficit, and 47 percent said spending should be cut, even if it hurts health, education and energy.

For now, the White House and Democrats can afford to let the House have its symbolic votes. But the upcoming vote over the debt ceiling ain't no symbol. It is utterly necessary that Congress raise the government's legal borrowing limit, or else the United States will technically default on its debt -- a move that could spook already-jittery international investors and put our interest rates on a roller coaster ride.

It's inconceivable that our government could preside over a technical default. But it's the Republicans' job to make that reality sound conceivable without further concessions to spending cuts. "I will not the vote for the debt ceiling increase until I see a plan in place that will deal with our long term obligations, starting with Social Security," Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Meet the Press on Sunday.

Here's the upshot. The noise about spending cuts in the next few weeks will occasionally sound clownish and absurd (Repeal health care reform? Repeal the stimulus? Come on.) But if the battle over spending cuts in the next few weeks is theater, consider it an opening number, a musical prologue to set the mood and establish the characters. The debt ceiling vote is the main act.