This Week: Budget Battles from Washington to Wisconsin

Copies of the administrations 2012 Budget proposal at the Senate Budget Committee on February14, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, chief political correspondent for Slate magazine, John Dickerson talks about the about budget battles in Washington, Wisconsin and around the country.

The battle over budgets is happening all over the country. Wisconsin has been in the spotlight this week over Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget slashing bill, but many of his cuts are directed towards unions. Among them, he wants state employees to contribute more to their pensions and health care and to limit collective bargaining rights.

John Dickerson said it's a hard to make a case that this proposal is only about cutting costs.

Walker has been making his case, but the question is whether this is a shared sacrifice or using the crisis of the moment to really dismantle unions. To the extent that other Republican governors are on the hotline with Walker looking for guidance and lending moral support, it certainly supports the idea that this is more of an ideological crusade to dismantle unions, more than just asking union members to share their share of the load.

The Wisconsin governor isn't targeting all unions. There are exemptions for firemen and policemen — groups that also supported the governor during his campaign

Gov. Walker isn't the only one bruising the unions. Mayor Bloomberg in New York is pressing Albany for pension reform. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is seeking changes for teacher pensions and benefits too.

Here's how Dickerson laid out the argument on each side of the fence:

Union members would argue well, those benefits were hard won and those deals were made when wage increases were not offered...so to help people understand it, this is like actually cutting pay...What Walker and others would say is that the reason this has to do with budgeting is that ...it gives governments more flexibility in doing the things they need to do to deal with their deficit problems and that they're hamstrung by collective bargaining. And without that flexibility, says Walker, you have to end up firing people instead of reshaping benefits, which makes them more draconian.

On Fox News on Sunday, Gov. Walker said just that: "What stood in the way time and time again was collective bargaining."

Beyond the ideological debate, there is also a real fiscal problem. Dickerson said each state will have to decide how much of the budget balancing is necessary trimming and how much of it is going overboard. One element of Gov. Walker's proposal is to end automatic union fee paychecks deductions. This, Dickerson said, doesn't seem like the element of a fiscal proposal.

If we're trying to find out where that line is, what's reasonable in terms of shared sacrifice and what's overreaching in order to pin back some group with whom you have ideological differences, this does seem to fall into that category. 

In the meantime, the Democratic state senators in Wisconsin are persona non grata. Dickerson said they've fled because without a quorum, the legislature can't vote on the governor's proposal. So, what's next?

The question is, whether the governor's line, which is that these Democratic lawmakers are shirking their duties, whether that starts to take on any purchase and whether they look like they're not being reasonable. Of course their argument is that the governor is not being reasonable. 

According to Dickerson, efforts have been made by unions and lawmakers to make this proposal work. Unions have said they'll give in on the health care and pension benefits if they can keep their collective bargaining, but the governor said no. Republicans suggested just a temporary two-year freezing of collective bargaining during the budget crisis. Gov. Walker said no to that too. Dickerson said the budget proposal is being put forth as an emergency fiscal measure and some of the provisions (like the automatic union fee paychecks deductions) are pretty distant from that. 

It isn't only about the shared sacrifice, it's also about who gave it the best shot.

The general argument is in tough times everybody has to sacrifice and sort of meet the other guy half way, who gets blamed for not acting in good faith. Lawmakers may get blamed for skipping town, but the governor may also get blamed for being completely inflexible when there have been some compromises put on the table.

Dickerson said as lawmakers in Washington deal with the nation's budget, they also want the message to be that they gave it a good shot, but this plan was slightly foiled with talk of a government shutdown. The last shutdown was in the mid-1990's under the Clinton administration and Republicans were blamed for it. Because the memory of how this tarred them, Dickerson thinks they'll make sure a shutdown doesn't happen again.

It will be a tough balancing act for John Boehner and the other Republican leaders in the House to both say to their conservative members, look we have to be prudent here. We all have the same goals cutting government, but let's not do something that obscures our goal by making people think we're being reckless and overreaching. That's a very difficult conversation he's going to have to make...how John Boehner manages the difference between those two numbers will be his key task over, pretty much the next two years.