At the end of last year, Barack Obama had the advantage of time for his effort to get tax hikes. If House Republicans refused to bend on tax increases on high-end earners, taxes would go up anyway on everyone. That leverage allowed Obama to score a big legislative victory on New Years Day, although not as big as he’d hoped.
Now, however, time is on the side of Republicans. Thanks to the 2011 Budget Control Act’s “sequesters,” spending cuts will hit whether Obama agrees to a budget plan to reduce overall spending or not. And Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, have taken a page from Obama’s book and will cheerfully allow them to hit, whether they like the impact or not:
Republicans will insist that automatic spending cuts take effect March 1 unless other cuts are adopted, Ryan said. They may force a shutdown of the government on March 27 unless Democrats agree to additional cuts. And they will demand that any future increase in the debt limit – likely to be necessary this summer if the measure to suspend the current debt limit is adopted — be paired dollar-for-dollar with spending cuts or other reforms.
“We have a sequester kicking in on March 1, a continuing resolution [on the budget] expiring on March the 27. We have budgets that, if the Senate decides to do its job this year, will come out in April,” Ryan said Wednesday at a breakfast with reporters. “These are the kind of points we think force the kind of conversation we think we have to have.”
These sequester cuts are not popular, not inside or outside Washington. The defense sequester is particularly problematic, but the entitlement sequester is almost as bad for liberals. They were designed to be painful enough to force Congress into making more substantial cuts across the board to control spending, but that strategy ended up like every other cliff strategy over the past two years.
Interestingly, Obama may have fatally undermined the Democratic strategy on the defense sequester before the trap could be sprung. The idea behind gouging the Pentagon was that it was such anathema to conservatives that Republicans would feel duty-bound to unwind it. And that was working for a while; in 2012, Republicans repeatedly warned about the impact of the defense sequester on military readiness and the overall economy.
Once Obama picked Chuck Hagel to replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense, however, that all became moot. Republicans have since become strangely quiet about the sequester’s impact. It’s very clear that Obama wants Hagel to enact deep cuts in military spending — or more accurately, be a front man for that policy with his service record and party affiliation as a shield.
If that’s what is coming anyway, well, why not let Hagel and Obama deal with the problems arising from the sequester?
Ryan’s threat to shut down the government falls into a similar category. One reporter asked Ryan why Republicans would go to that extent to get spending under control:
When a reporter asked why Republicans would consider shutting down the government when the brinksmanship of the past two years has put the congressional approval rating in the teens, Ryan shot back: “So, we don’t have much to lose, do we? This is not about politics and what makes us popular. This is about what is the right thing to do.”
That could be Washington’s motto: When all else fails, do the right thing.