Possible new debt-ceiling compromise: GOP to agree to cuts in defense spending?

Gotta give the Democrats something to get a deal. Why not the disarming of America that they’ve dreamed of for so long?

I kid. This is a biggish concession that Republicans are dressing up as a huge concession in hopes that agreeing to it will placate liberals and thereby give Obama enough political cover to drop his demand for tax hikes. Tea partiers will tolerate cuts to defense, especially now that O’s short-circuited the Afghanistan surge just in term for his reelection campaign. (The Ron Paul wing of the tea party will welcome the cuts, of course.) What they won’t tolerate is tax increases, so the GOP’s going to try to leverage the left’s stereotype of the right as adamantly and uniformly hawkish, even though it doesn’t really apply anymore (as last week’s Libya vote proved). If we concede on the top Republican issue circa 2006, i.e. defense spending, will you concede on the top Republican issue right now, i.e. trillion-dollar budget cuts?

It’s so crazy it just might work.

In listening sessions with their rank and file, House Republican leaders said they have found a surprising willingness to consider defense cuts that would have been unthinkable five years ago, when they last controlled the House. While the sessions have sparked heated debate on many issues, Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), the deputy GOP whip, said there are few lawmakers left who view the Pentagon budget as sacrosanct…

“Defense spending is damaging spending. Many of us believe it does more harm than good to our people and to our reputation in the world,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). “If we can get $100 billion from reducing unneeded military spending, that’s better than $100 billion in taxation.”

Getting to an agreement to cut defense spending may not be easy, however. Many Republicans are still hawkish and want to fully support U.S. troops abroad. Rank-and-file lawmakers said they specifically oppose any across-the-board reductions to the Pentagon budget, preferring that incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta present Congress with a detailed plan of programs to be slashed…

“Our caucus would come in and say, ‘This is a reasonable place for defense,’ as long it wasn’t arbitrary and capricious. If the secretary reworked the numbers, our guys would go, okay,” said a senior GOP aide, who said the White House has so far refused to offer a detailed annual spending plan for the Pentagon. Without official guidance, the aide said, “it’s kind of like: Pick the defense number. And we can’t do that.”

They’re going to have to concede on revenue increases too, but the feeling is that if they give on defense, the Democrats will limit their demands to closing tax loopholes and ending subsidies instead of raising tax rates. Another possibility: Means-testing for entitlements, assuming the two sides ever get around to touching those, which would operate as a liberal-pleasing de facto tax on the rich even though it would operate by reducing mandatory spending.

Just one question, via the famously hawkish Robert Kagan: How do we know defense cuts will save us money in the long run?

Here’s the core point that Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, George Will, and now Barack Obama can’t quite seem to understand: Failure in Afghanistan will cost much, much more than the billions spent on this surge. What was the cost to the U.S. economy of the attacks on 9/11? What will be the cost if the terrorist groups now operating in Afghanistan—the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e Taiba, as well as al Qaeda—are able to reconstitute safe havens and the next president has to send troops back in to clear them out again? It is a peculiar kind of wisdom that can only see the problems and costs of today and cannot imagine the problems and costs of tomorrow.

Right, but spending money on the problems of tomorrow that may or may not materialize is a bit harder to justify when you’re $14 trillion in the hole and the wave of an entitlements crisis is just starting to break. At the very least, even if the Democrats don’t bite on this offer, the GOP can use defense cuts to smart political effect by pressuring Obama on the Libya mission. The One’s speech about Afghanistan withdrawal was all about ending foreign adventures in order to concentrate on “nation-building” at home, right? Well, Republicans are ready to play ball: We can save hundreds of millions of dollars if O will relent from an increasingly unpopular mission that has little to do with U.S. national security. Even on defense, in other words, his budget is beyond what the famously hawkish GOP is comfortable with. That’s a nice talking point to hammer at when voters are already worried about Democrats’ runaway spending.

Here’s Mitch McConnell laying into Obama on the Senate floor earlier. Exit question via TPM: What happens to the tea party movement if GOP leaders disappoint them yet again on debt ceiling negotiations? The tax-cuts deal late last year and the 2011 budget compromise a few months ago generated a lot of grumbling, but the debt ceiling battle has always been the Super Bowl when it comes to meaningful concessions from the left. If Boehner gets, say, $2 trillion in cuts but no balanced-budget amendment or serious entitlement reform, do tea partiers stay home next year? If not, why would the leadership ever fear crossing them in the future? Click the image to watch.