February 21, 2013

So it’s looking more and more like Republicans will propose an alternative to the sequester: It would kick in, but Obama administration agency heads would have control to reallocate where the cuts hit at their discretion, so they’re not imposed in a slap-dash across-the-board fashion. Among those suggesting this idea: National Review and Karl Rove. My Post colleague Jennifer Rubin reports that it’s being discussed.

This is, as Brian Beutler notes, a “clever” idea. It makes Republicans look more reasonable, because they’re giving control over the cuts to the Obama administration. It allows Republicans to escape proposing a new batch of specific replacement cuts. (Remember, Republicans keep claiming the House has passed its own plans to avert the sequester, but those died with the last Congress, and there’s no telling whether House Republicans could pass another one.) And it puts pressure on Dems to accept the plan, because it makes the sequester less arbitrary and threatening.

I’m picking up some rumblings to the effect that some folks are worried that red state Democrats could potentially find this idea seductive. Some Dems think the GOP designed it specifically to attract them.

But Dems would be insane to embrace this. At bottom, it is simply a way for Republicans to bait Dems into accepting their insistence on reducing the deficit only through spending cuts. Agreeing to it would represent a total cave on the need for more revenues, which Dems have worked very hard to keep in the deficit reduction mix. This would signal to Republicans that Dems are prepared to accept a cuts-only approach — making it impossible for them to renew any demands for new revenues later. Dems are eying the coming government shutdown as the next chance to force a GOP surrender on revenues. Signaling now that Dems are prepared to drop the demand for more revenues — even temporarily — would be folly.

The basic overall dynamic needs to be this: If Republicans aren’t willing to avert the sequester through a compromise that involves new revenues, they risk taking the public blame for the lost jobs and damage to the economy it creates. Agreeing to a cuts-only solution undercuts any leverage Dems can derive from this dynamic. Worse, since these cuts would be allocated by Obama agency heads, the Obama administration would own them. The new Pew poll found that 76 percent of Americans want the deficit reduced through a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts — this public position is holding even after Republicans already agreed to tax hikes as part of the fiscal cliff deal. The public is with Dems on this. They shouldn’t muddy the waters.

One Senate Democratic leadership aide emails: “Nobody should be fooled by this proposal. This is another Republican scheme to take additional revenue from wealthy individuals and corporations off the table. It’s a cuts-only plan that will require our men and women in uniform, first responders and teachers to bear all the burden of these cuts.” This seems like a message directed directly at red state Dems.

Fortunately, Beutler reports that Senate Dems are likely to vote down this idea. Good. They should. The way out of this for Republicans is to agree to genuine compromise — and accept the need for new revenues already.

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