The party of Reagan, or the party of the Club for Growth?

February 6, 2013

At a press conference just now, Republican officials who fear that the sequester will damage our national security trained their fire mostly on President Obama, lambasting him for putting us in a position that could compromise our military.

But no matter how much ire was directed at the President, what the presser revealed with overwhelming clarity is that the battle over the sequester has sparked intra-party tensions among Republicans — one that exposes the rift between “anti-tax Republicans” and “defense Republicans,” as Josh Green put it today.

At the presser, GOP officials like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and Buck McKeon all lined up to warn that the sequester must be averted at all costs. McKeon has long been pushing for a bill that would avert the sequester with an across the board cut of 10 percent to the federal workforce.

“Our defense should not be used as a bargaining chip,” Ayotte said.

The only trouble with this line is that other Republicans have explicitly said they are prepared to use the sequester in just this way — to force the spending cuts they want. John Boehner recently told the Wall Street Journal that the sequester (and not the debt ceiling) would be the primary source of the party’s leverage in the fiscal battles to come. Paul Ryan has hinted he’s prepared to let the sequester go forward if Dems won’t agree to avert it only with spending cuts. The Club For Growth, meanwhile, is actively urging lawmakers to allow it to happen.

But at the presser, defense Republicans denounced this course of action as a threat to the country’s security, and even likened it to helping the enemy. At one point, Lindsey Graham said: “I’m sure Iran is very supportive of sequestration.”

I asked Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller for a response. “Congress promised when they passed the Budget Control Act that if the supercommittee failed, they’d do sequestration,” he said. “We don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to do what they promised they would do.”

Asked specifically to respond to Graham’s Iran crack, Keller said: “I’m not going to stoop to that level.”

For much of the presser, Republican officials managed to keep the tension between these two wings of the party under wraps by continually directing their fire at Obama as being to blame for the current sequester threat. But towards the end of the presser, Graham explicitly targeted fellow Republicans, making the tensions explicit.

Graham said that McKeon would be holding hearings on the sequester’s impact, and then added, in a barb directed at Republicans: “After this hearing, if you feel comfortable cutting the government this way, then you have lost your way as much as the president.” Graham indignantly noted that Ronald Reagan had said government’s number one responsibility is to fund defense, and concluded: “I intend to fight for the party of Ronald Reagan.”

The larger story here is that these tensions all flow from one basic fact: The refusal of many Republicans to entertain even another penny in new revenues from the wealthy. After all, Republicans have a very simple way out of this mess: They can agree to new revenues via tax reform. If they did, Obama and Dems would agree to spending cuts, and on balance, the overall deficit reduction ledger would, at the end of the day, still remain tilted toward Republicans. A handful of Republicans have been willing to openly entertain agreeing to new revenues rather than let the sequester slice into defense spending. But the vast majority won’t, and because of this, the sequester is looming, and the party is divided over what to do about it.

The reflexive ideological opposition to cutting defense (which Republicans have long equated with weakness) is running headlong into the reflexive ideological insistence on shrinking government.

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UPDATE: I’ve changed the headline to reflect the fact that the Club for Growth is quoted in the story.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Jamelle Bouie | February 6, 2013