It's not ideal, but funding the federal government two or three weeks at a time is cutting spending by about $2 billion a week. In a little more than a month, the budget will have been trimmed as much as President Obama offered to cut for the year.
Stay this course, and there could be savings of about $62 billion, right around the amount House Republicans wanted in HR1, their budget to see the government through the current fiscal year. That's real money, though, as one GOP staffer rightly points out, it's still like cutting four bucks from a $1,000 deficit. (And Democrats can barely find four bits to trim.)
Still, these are the first actual cuts in memory. Even Ronald Reagan was only able to slow the growth of welfare-state spending.
As William Voegeli writes in Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State, "For welfare-state spending to have grown less than 1 percent a year for eight years was an exceptional achievement . . . but it is still a positive number. Reagan's 'triumph' was to yield ground more slowly than any other political leader in the battle that conservatives consider their central mission."
Today's fiscal conservatives want to do more than nibble away at trillion-dollar deficits.
"I was sent to Congress to cut wasteful Washington spending," U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) told me last week. "While I voted for the first two continuing resolutions, I'm not going to continue to support that approach forever. . . .
"We need certainty in the current fiscal year, and we need to begin budgeting for next fiscal year, and we need to start now."
Why the uncertainty for a fiscal year that's almost halfway done?
Because last year the Democrats, in control of the House, the Senate, and the White House, refused to pass a budget. They knew that angry voters were about to punish them for their spendthrift ways, and they didn't have the courage to say their solution to runaway debt and deficits was even more debt and deficits. They still refuse real cuts - they won't even meet the GOP halfway - and yet complain that it's irresponsible to keep passing continuing resolutions and to focus on last year's business. Courage, no. Chutzpah, yes.
"To not do that budget was wrong," says Pat Meehan (R., Pa.), who, like Fitzpatrick, was elected in November.
In contrast to that "failure to look the American people in the eye," Meehan says, the present House took its duties seriously and passed HR1. The Senate and White House, however, keep stalling.
The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected HR1. So Obama tapped Vice President Biden to lead 2011 budget negotiations, which have fallen as flat as that infamous White House beer summit. The president's budget for next year was at least bipartisan - neither side of the aisle took it seriously. The Congressional Budget Office recently said it underestimates deficits by $2.3 trillion.
"I was disappointed that the administration appointed Biden to be the point person and then he picked up and went to Russia," Meehan says. "That sent the message that there wasn't genuine interest in negotiations."
Thus, the short-term spending bills, which Meehan says show "progress" on spending, but don't go nearly far enough. The 54 House Republicans who voted against the most recent continuing resolution would agree. Many of them believe it's time to confront Senate Democrats and produce a real budget - even if that risks a showdown.
"I don't think there's anybody I've spoken to in the House that wants to shut the government down," Meehan says. "But there are certainly a number of people who are concerned they're not being taken seriously. If there are no meaningful negotiations, it's going to be hard to get some folks to agree to another continuing resolution."
On principle, they're right. But if Democrats won't budge, there might have to be more short-term spending bills. Not ideal, but better than a shutdown like the one that burned the GOP in the Clinton era.
And there's another good reason to finish the 2011 budget without a meltdown: The 2012 budget will be even harder, with a likely fight over Social Security and Medicare reforms.
Compromise won't be easy for those demanding reforms now. But they should keep in mind at least one thing that's already been accomplished.
"This is a changed culture," Mike Fitzpatrick says. "It's gone from one that sits around deciding how to spend more than last year to having serious discussions over how much to cut from last year. That's the right approach. The economy requires it. That's the work people sent us there to do."