February 28, 2013

Today the Senate will vote on two alternatives to the sequester. The Democratic plan would temporarily replace the sequester with a 50-50 short term mix of cuts and new revenues. The Republican plan would transfer broad authority over the cuts to the Obama administration.

Neither plan is expected to pass, but the competing proposals tell us a lot about each side’s view of the politics of the battle that’s about to unfold.

The GOP plan reveals the lengths to which Republicans are willing to go to avoid proposing spending cuts of the magnitude necessary to replace the sequester. After all, one of the primary GOP talking points throughout this fight has been that Republicans have a plan to avert the sequester, and Senate Democrats don’t. But the two sequester replacement bills Republicans passed out of the House died with the last Congress, and many analysts have doubted Republicans can pass another one in this one. The GOP plan to transfer authority to the administration suggests Republicans would rather transfer ownership of the cuts to the President than try to pass a new batch of replacement cuts — even a short term one — that Republicans would be politically on the hook for proposing.

The GOP replacement plan also undermines another broadly employed talking point among conservatives: That the sequester cuts “only” amount to a tiny percentage of the government. If that were true, why not just pass a set of replacement cuts — which would presumably be easy to do if the sequester cuts are no big deal — rather than transfer authority over the sequester to the President?

After all, transferring that authority is a step many Republicans are loath to take: During the debt ceiling fight, one of the explicit reasons Republicans didn’t want to give up Congressional control over debt ceiling hikes was that it would supposedly transfer the power of the purse to the President. As John Boehner put it at the time: “Congress is never going to give up our ability to control the purse.” But now Republicans would rather give that control to Obama than propose real replacement cuts? Jonathan Capehart’s reaction seems about right: “Color me confused.”

The Senate Democratic plan won’t pass today, but it tells us how Democrats view this battle. They’re content to continue staking out the position that we should avert the sequester by replacing it with an equivalent mix of tax hikes and spending cuts. Even if you think the Democratic plan is substandard, it is still a specific plan to avert the sequester. By contrast, Republicans want to continue insisting in the abstract that we should replace the sequester with spending cuts, without proposing specific cuts to do that.

Republicans keep telling us that the American people don’t want any more tax hikes to avert the sequester. But their actions amount to an implicit concession that being the party of only deep spending cuts is worse politically than being the party that wants to reduce the deficit through a mix of cuts and tax hikes. As Jonathan Chait has noted, Republicans really don’t know what their endgame is in this battle. Dems will continue holding to their position that the best way to reduce the deficit is through a mix of trimming entitlements and closing tax loopholes. Meanwhile, as Chait says, the real drama continues to rest with Republicans, who need to figure out what they really want here.

* GOP claims public is on its side on sequester: The Times reports that aides to John Boehner believe they have successfully persuaded the public that the sequester was Obama’s “idea”. There’s also this from Mitch McConnell: “One thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to.”

Actually, a recent Pew poll found that 76 percent of Americans want the sequester replaced with a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts, while only 19 percent agree with the GOP position. Whatever Americans believe about the sequester being Obama’s “idea,” Pew also finds they will blame the GOP for it over Obama by 49-31.

* White House believes GOP will ultimately fold: Also key from the Times piece is this glimpse into White House thinking:

White House strategists say they believe that a constant drip of bad news will emerge in Congressional districts across the country in the weeks ahead, generating negative headlines and, they hope, putting Republicans on the defensive for their refusal to raise taxes. In accepting the inevitability of an extended Washington stalemate, the White House is risking the possibility that Americans may eventually blame the president, not members of Congress, for job losses, smaller paychecks, longer lines at airports, a reduction in government services and a less well-equipped military.

In other words, the White House is preparing to play the long game. The current political atmosphere clearly favors Obama — the public agrees with him on how the deficit should be reduced, and overall he’s held in far higher standing than the GOP — but the question remains whether protracted bad news will shift this dynamic.

* But in truth, the impact of the sequester is unpredictable: The New Republic talks to a range of economists who predict a variety of outcomes, from a real economic slowdown to almost no meaningful impact at all. Almost everyone seems to agree that the sequester is bad policy. However, it’s possible that if the impact is negligible, it could reflect badly on the White House, given its predictions of doom, and could reinforce the argument that there’s plenty to cut out of the federal government.

* White House claims of sequester doom may prove overstated: Relatedly, the Post points out that administration claims about the sequester leading to teacher pink slips are false, and more broadly reports that gaming out the true impact it will have is largely guesswork.

* Labor airs ads hitting GOP on sequester: A coalition of unions — the SEIU, AFSCME, AFT, and the NEA — are going up with TV ads hitting Republican leaders on the sequester, arguing that they are choosing to inflict pain on millions to avoid closing millionaire tax loopholes. Versions of the ad — which also target other GOP members of Congress — will air in various Ohio, California, Florida, and Iowa markets. The spot suggests outside groups will enter the national battle set to unfold in March over who is to blame for the sequester as its damage begins to be felt.

* No, Obama cannot magically bend Congress to its will: Good for E.J. Dionne for pointing out what so many columnists are reluctant to say out loud:

The air of establishment Washington is filled with talk that Obama must “lead.” But Obama cannot force the House Republican majority to act if it doesn’t want to. He is (fortunately) not a dictator. What Obama can do is expose the cause of this madness, which is the dysfunction of the Republican Party. Journalists don’t like saying this because it sounds partisan. But the truth is the truth, whether it sounds partisan or not.

There is nothing that will get certain columnists to be forthright about the deep and fundamental imbalance between the two parties’ approach to the sequester and, more broadly, to our fiscal problems in general. Also, do read Ed Kilgore’s excellent discussion of this problem. Steve Benen also had a must-read on this the other day.

* Bloomberg gearing up to spend big on guns in 2014: Fresh off Robin Kelly’s victory in Illinois’ second district this week, Michael Bloomberg’s PAC is gearing up to spend big money against “gun rights” pols in the 2014 elections. The idea is to prove that there is a big-spending counterweight to the NRA out there — and that opposing gun reform can be turned into a political liability.

Outstanding question: Will Bloomberg’s PAC spend money on ads pressuring lawmakers — in both parties — to support Obama’s gun control proposals, and could that have a palpable impact on the legislative outcome?

* And Bernanke agrees with Krugman on deficit: Joe Scarborough and others have taken to suggesting Paul Krugman is a crazy fringe economic hippie for arguing that now is the wrong time to aggressively slash the deficit, but as Krugman notes, it turns out that none other than Ben Bernanke agrees with him. Not that this will be enough to prevent this position from being treated as a marginal one…

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.