February 7, 2013

The New York Times reports today that Senate Dems are putting together a plan to avert the sequester with new revenues drawn from things like nixing tax breaks enjoyed by oil and gas companies and closing loopholes for the wealthy and corporations.

I can add a bit more. I’m told Senate Dem leaders are not looking at offering just revenues, but are actually looking to offer Republicans a compromise proposal that includes a mix of new revenues and specific spending cuts, in order to avert the sequester. In other words, Senate Dems will not just propose new revenues; they’ll propose new specific spending cuts, too, rather than just let Republicans propose them.

“Democrats plan to bring a balanced plan that includes revenue and cuts to the table to avoid sequestration,” a Senate leadership aide tells me.

I couldn’t determine how much in cuts is being discussed, or where they would come from, but the aide noted that Dems have offered spending cuts “in every fiscal negotiation.” The aide said Dems were eying a possible one-to-one mix of cuts to revenues, or perhaps somewhat more in revenues, to stake out a stronger negotiating position.

There’s disagreement among Dems about how to proceed. The aide tells me that progressive Senators want a revenue-only offer but that Dem leaders disagree. “There has been significant pressure within the Democratic caucus to offer a revenue-only approach, but leaders have concluded that they must continue with the balanced approach that the American people have called for,” the aide says. “This is about being the adult in the room and offering a plan that can actually pass Congress.”

This could annoy some on the left who may worry there’s no percentage in offering cuts, since it will only allow Republicans to deride them as unserious and ask for still more, shifting the debate in their direction. But the White House is already on record saying it supports averting the sequester through a mix of revenues and cuts, so not even Obama could support an approach that only includes revenues.

What’s more, despite the left’s criticism in the past of offering cuts up front as part of an “adult in the room” strategy, this has arguably worked to some degree. During the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling fights, Republicans ended up caving specifically because it became overwhelmingly obvious to the public that they were the intransigent party standing in the way of compromise — the political risk of taking the blame for taxes going up on everyone, and then default, simply became too great.

Republicans appear more willing to allow the sequester to go forward than they were to go over the cliff or default. But there are increasing signs of queasiness among them about the sequester, too. Dems are gambling they won’t risk taking the blame for gutting defense and tanking the economy — particularly if Dems grab the middle ground with an offer that’s balanced between revenues and cuts.

It remains to be seen what Dems will offer, and surely Republicans will deride whatever they do offer as unserious. But the simple fact is that Democrats right now are the only party willing to compromise to avoid the sequester. This is not a partisan observation; it’s a factual one. The Democratic position is that Republicans will get some of the spending cuts they want if they agree to closing loopholes. By contrast, Republicans are explicitly saying that any deal that gives Dems any of the new revenues they want is a nonstarter. Even if Republicans dismiss the cuts Dems do offer as insufficent, it will remain objectively true that only one side is suggesting we avert the sequester with a compromise that includes some of what both sides want. Meanwhile, the other side’s openly declared position is that this must not happen and that the sequester is preferable to both sides getting some of what they want.

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