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The real issue is runaway spending

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
January 3, 2013 -- Updated 1444 GMT (2244 HKT)
House Speaker John Boehner walks out after a second meeting with House Republicans January 1 over the fiscal cliff deal.
House Speaker John Boehner walks out after a second meeting with House Republicans January 1 over the fiscal cliff deal.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Senate and House Republicans are warring over fiscal policy
  • Navarrette: Senate GOP offered a Band-Aid for fiscal cliff; House GOP wanted to treat the wound
  • He says the House GOP is on the right track in trying to cut back federal spending
  • Boehner's role as speaker could be damaged by his vote on fiscal deal, he says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego (CNN) -- Did Senate Republicans have too much bubbly on New Year's Eve and pass a bill to avert the fiscal cliff that some in the GOP insist includes too much in new taxes without cutting spending? Are House Republicans so stubborn in their pursuit of spending cuts that they're ready to go to war with members of their own party?

In trying to avoid the fiscal cliff, House and Senate Republicans put the Grand Ole Party -- and the country -- on the brink of a political one.

It's never good for party unity when a House lawmaker jokes that his Senate colleagues passed a late-night measure because of "partying and revelry and drinking" in the wee hours. Yet, that's what California representative and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said in an interview on CNN's "The Situation Room." When Wolf Blitzer asked Issa if he was suggesting that Senate Republicans were drunk when they voted, Issa backtracked and said: "Of course not. I was just having a little fun with you, Wolf."

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

That's hilarious. This guy must be the life of the party. But the rest of us still have to wonder whether, after the raucous fiscal cliff negotiations, his party has any life left in it.

Politics: Debt debate starts now

The House adjourned on Monday without voting on a bill to avoid the automatic tax hikes and deep spending cuts set to take place that midnight. The Senate burned the midnight oil and passed -- by a vote of 89 to 8 -- an emergency bill with more than $600 billion in new revenue over 10 years. The legislation also allowed the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for families making more than $450,000 annually.

On New Year's Day, House Republicans struck back and rejected the Senate bill as insufficient in its spending cuts. Only 85 Republicans voted in favor, while 151 voted against. With plenty of Democratic support, the measure passed. But it was over the objections of most House Republicans, who will surely fight for more cuts in spending during the fast-approaching debt ceiling negotiations.

Boehner to Reid: Go 'f' yourself
Focus needs to be on avoiding downgrades
U.S. Congress - a self-inflicted wound

The bigger drama is still playing out. We're seeing a civil war between Republicans, although at this point you really can't call it "civil."

This is not a simple difference of opinion that can be papered over by inserting a few paragraphs into a bill. This is about different visions for what Republicans think their role should be when they're out of power.

Speaking of power, House Speaker John Boehner appears to be fresh out. After failing to get enough support from those in his own party for an alternative plan in the House, Boehner wound up going "all in" on passing a bill. He must have thought that his speakership depended on not coming up empty-handed.

Politics: Are the days of Congress 'going big' over? But Boehner might have lost a good deal of the support and confidence of his Republican colleagues. The formal vote on whether to keep him in the speaker's chair is set for Thursday. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor just might be biding his time in the wings, after he split from Boehner and voted no on the Senate bill.

Boehner let the pressure get to him.

Just ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is never at a loss for words, and usually the wrong ones. Reid accused of Boehner of running the House of Representatives like a "dictatorship." So when Boehner happened to bump into Reid, a few days before the fiscal cliff deadline, in a hallway of the White House, witnesses say the speaker told the Democratic majority leader to "go f--- yourself." Twice.

It also doesn't help build support or confidence in the speaker that he has proved to be no match for the chess skills of President Barack Obama, who always seems to have a pretty good idea of the opposition's next move. So, when Obama staged a press event on New Year's Eve to press for higher taxes on the wealthy as the House was deliberating, he had to know that the stunt would scuttle the process. That would have sent us over the cliff and ensure that Republicans got the blame. Checkmate.

The trouble is, that's not leadership. It's gamesmanship. On this issue, as with many others, Obama the Master Politician confuses the two.

To avoid the fiscal cliff, Senate Republicans offered a Band-Aid; those in the House wanted to treat the wound.

It would have been no excuse for shirking their duty and not passing a bill, but the Republicans in the lower chamber were on the right track. We have to deal sooner or later with the federal government's runaway spending, but there's no appetite for that in Congress. There never will be.

In fact, for all the talk about whether to raise taxes on the wealthy, the real sticking point in this debate was what to do about spending we can no longer afford -- especially on programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

Politics: New congress tackles old leftovers

Lawmakers in both parties, who respect and fear the senior citizen lobby, won't have this conversation. So they would just as soon keep Americans distracted with an argument over who should pay what in taxes.

Don't be taken in. What Americans should really be thinking about at this moment is where all that money is going and whether we can keep paying those bills no matter how high the tax rates soar.

Remember how it works with your own household budget. It's not only how much comes in that matters; just as important is how much goes out.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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