With House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., set to release his fiscal 2012 budget proposal in the coming weeks, conservatives pushing for spending restraint will face a complex question.
Right now, the budget battle concerns the remaining six months of the fiscal 2011 budget, with the possibility of a government shutdown looming if no deal is struck by April 8. The Ryan plan will not only deal with the full 2012 fiscal year beginning in October, but will offer a budget outline for the next 10 years.
As everybody who studies the federal budget knows, the true drivers of our long-term debt are entitlement programs. Under President Obama's proposed budget, so-called "mandatory spending" on programs including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would approach $3.5 trillion by 2021, according to the Congressional Budget Office, representing roughly 60 percent of that year's federal spending.
So the question facing conservative activists is whether to focus all their energies on the short-time budget fight that deals with $61 billion in cuts over the next several months, or place more emphasis the next fight that could affect spending for decades to come.
Many conservatives would argue that there isn't a tradeoff involved -- that if anything, if Republicans show themselves to be weak on the smaller immediate budget battle, that there's no way they'd be able to tackle the real long-term budget challenges. And there's certainly truth to that.
Yet there's also the risk that if the government ends up shutting down on April 8, the public will blame Republicans (however unfairly) and suddenly the idea of cutting government spending will become unpopular. Under this scenario, it becomes a lot less likely that a chastened GOP would be willing to go to battle over the much thornier budget issues.
However conservatives decide to answer this question, the key is that the strategy builds toward the long-term goal of fundamentally reforming entitlements.