February 8, 2013

The difference between the Republican and Democratic positions on the sequester is simple: Democrats believe reaching a compromise is preferable to letting the sequester happen, since it could devastate the military and scuttle the recovery. Republicans believe letting the sequester happen is preferable to reaching a compromise, even though it could devastate the military and scuttle the recovery.

This is not a partisan observation. It is a straightforward factual description of the two sides’ positions and public statements. The Democratic position is that we must avert the sequester with a mix of new revenues and spending cuts — which is to say, a mix of what both sides want. The Republican position is that we must avert the deal only with spending cuts — which is to say, only with what Republicans want. Some Republicans are openly declaring that they will sooner allow the sequester to kick in than accept a compromise that includes revenue hikes. In other words, the sequester is preferable to any compromise that includes a mix of concessions by both sides. That’s their explicit position.

Indeed, Politico details this morning that many Republicans are holding to this position because they believe that they can blame Obama for the sequester. Roll Call adds that Mitch McConnell is urging Republicans to draw a hard line on the issue.

But given that polls show the public is already convinced Republicans are not doing enough to compromise with Obama, this position is not without risk to their side.  So Republicans have tried to obscure the true nature of their stance in two ways.

One is to pretend they are the party that has made all the concessions to deficit reduction thus far. For instance, Charles Krauthammer argues today that Republicans should not give an inch on new revenues, because they already agreed to tax hikes as part of the fiscal cliff deal. Krauthammer doesn’t mention that Democrats agreed to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts — significantly more than the $700 billion in revenues Republicans agreed to — in 2011. Indeed, even if the parties agreed to a roughly one-to-one split between revenues and cuts to avert the sequester, the overall ledger would still be tilted towards Republicans.

The second way Republicans try to obscure the true nature of their position is by pretending Democrats aren’t willing to cut spending. But there’s that aforementioned $1.5 trillion that must not ever be discussed. What’s more, there is simply no question that if Republicans agreed to new revenues, Democrats would give Republicans at least as much, and likely more, in spending cuts. Yes, some liberals want Dems to refuse to offer any cuts. But the position of Democratic leaders, and even the President himself, is that spending cuts must be part of any deal. By contrast, the position held by the Tea Party wing of the GOP — no new revenues no matter what — is the position held by GOP leaders.

The problem for Republicans remains that they are on record saying that the sequester would devastate our military and are even on record saying it would scuttle the recovery. And so the current political situation is this: One side is willing to reach a compromise to avert disaster for the country; the other is not only unwilling to reach a compromise to avert disaster, it views the impending disaster as an opportunity to get what it wants and even sees it as preferable to compromise. This is an objectively true description of the two sides’ positions. If Republicans believe this is a political winner for them, then hey, go for it.

* Dems divided on sequester strategy: I reported here yesterday that Senate liberals are urging Dem leaders to offer a sequester deal that includes only revenues but the leadership and Obama disagree. The Hill moves the ball forward today, reporting on further divisions among Dems over how to proceed., with Max Baucus apparently opposed (for now) to closing loopholes enjoyed by individuals and corporations.

One key area of disagreement: What should the balance of revenues to cuts be in their initial offer? If it is not heavily tilted towards revenues, it will anger liberals who don’t want Dems to offer too many cuts up front, since Republicans will denounce whatever they offer as unserious and demand more, pulling the debate to the right. In the end, Dems will all but certainly agree to more in cuts than in revenues.

* More progress on universal background checks? I noted here yesterday that all signs are that the bipartisan group of Senators working on a compromise proposal to expand background checks are making quiet progress. The Associated Press adds a bit more, noting that three exemptions are being considered: Gun transfers between family members; sales in remote areas; and possibly veterans who are getting treated for traumatic stress disorder.

The question is whether the compromise will meaningfully expand background checks by closing the private seller loophole, rather than just beef up the national database with better data-sharing. Things may be headed in the right direction.

* About the NRA’s claim to having 4.5 million members: Glenn Kessler does a deep dive into this ubiquitous claim and finds that the evidence just doesn’t support it. The larger story is that many lawmakers have historically been far too credulous about the NRA’s supposed invincibility, and have been all too willing to concede up front that the gun control argument can’t carry the day. The NRA is very good at mobilizing an impassioned minority very quickly around its issue, but public opinion is squarely on the side of sensible gun reform.

 * Yes, we should “kick the can down the road” on the debt: Recently John Boehner claimed Washington has been unserious about spending for decades and that we should stop “kicking the can” down the road. Paul Krugman replies: During the Clinton years, we were far more “serious” about the debt than under Bush, and it’s folly to resolve the debt right now with cuts that will imperil the fragile recovery.

I’d add that there’s a strategic imperative for Republicans to keep falsely claiming Dems are not willing to cut spending: If the public understood that they are willing to do just that, it would become overwhelmingly obvious that Republicans are the intransigent party that remains the principle obstacle to compromise.

Also: Don’t miss James Downie’s excellent explainer on why unemployment, and not the deficit, is the most pressing problem we face right now and the one we should be dealing with in the short term.

* Republicans facing reality on Obamacare: Sarah Kliff has an interesting look at the six Republican governors who have decided to opt in to the Medicaid expansion, despite all the previous huffing and puffing to the contrary. It’s good to see that Republicans are putting the needs of their own constituents before the desire to pander to the Tea Partyers and Obamacare Repeal Dead-Enders.

Also see Ron Brownstein’s piece on the slow GOP embrace of the inevitable in the face of continued conservative resistance.

* Bill O’Reilly struggles with reality: Your sorely needed Friday comic relief: Watch Steve Benen have a good deal of fun with O’Reilly’s ongoing claims that NBC won’t touch the drones story.

* And the Senate race of the century? Scott Conroy on the possibility of a match-up between Al Franken and Michelle Bachmann. No, really. She seems far too conservative (and perhaps too unbalanced) to manage a statewide race in Minnesota. But the thinking is that she could be competitive if 2014 gives us a 2010-like electorate (which Dems will work hard to avoid by turning out the core 2012 coalition).

What else?

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