February 8, 2013

Democrats are closing in on a strategy to offer Republicans a plan to avert the sequester with a roughly 50-50 mix of new revenues and spending cuts, to put renewed pressure on Republicans to drop their reflexive opposition to new revenues. Senator Sherrod Brown described some of the details of the plan in an interview with me this afternoon.

Notably, Brown said that Senator Harry Reid had assured Democrats that there would be no cuts to entitlement benefits in the offer, which could mollify liberals worried that Dems will give away too much in some sort of “grand bargain” to avert the sequester.

“Reid made a decision to do something the country will support,” Brown told me. “We just have to get Republicans off of their intransigence on this.”

A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide tells me that between spending cuts and revenue increases, the plan will likely include roughly $120 billion in deficit reduction over the next ten years, applied to averting the sequester for the next 10 months, or the rest of this calendar year.

Brown said that some of the spending cuts being considered for the plan include cutting farm subsidies, some defense cuts, and perhaps cuts to Medicare, but only on the provider side. A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide told me that when it comes to the defense cuts in the plan, it will be a “scaled back version of what the sequester already does.”

Meanwhile, Democrats are mulling an array of new revenues for the plan: The Buffett Rule, ending the carried interest loophole, nixing tax breaks for oil and gas companies and companies that offshore jobs, and cutting farm subsidies (many of which were expected).

I noted here yesterday that some Senate liberals are wary of offering cuts up front. The move could stir some angst among liberals who worry that doing this just allows Republicans to denounce them as unserious and demand more, moving the debate in their direction. Liberals also worry that Dems could agree to a “grand bargain” that includes entitlement benefits cuts.

But Brown, a leading Senate liberal himself, said he was comfortable with the strategy as a good way of occupying the middle ground in the debate and showcasing GOP extremism. Brown told me the goal is to demonstrate that “Democrats are very much in the mainstream of where the country wants to go,” while “Republicans are unwilling to compromise at all.”

Brown also said the final package would not cut into entitlement benefits: “It will be cost cutting, not benefits cuts.” He vowed Dems would not allow the GOP to reprise its 2011 strategy of demanding ever more in spending cuts while offering nothing in return. He said the results of the election — which confirmed that the country wants a balanced approach to paying down the deficit, one in which the wealthy bear some of the sacrifice to spare those who can least afford it — would induce Dems to hold the line at a reasonable cuts-to-revenue balance. He vowed Dems would not be pulled dramatically in the GOP’s direction.

“If they aren’t willing to move, we’re not going to split the difference on this one,” Brown said. “The election has wiped that strategy off the table.”

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UPDATE: This post has been edited slightly for accuracy.

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