The Morning Plum: Who do the austerians in Congress speak for, anyway?

When a tornado pulverized an Oklahoma City suburb last week, it renewed a debate in Congress over whether federal aid for disaster relief must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. In the case of the Oklahoma tornado, conservative senators such as Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe immediately declared the need for offsets. Previously, large swaths of Republicans in the House voted against federal aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy, demanding it be offset by cuts elsewhere, which ultimately required that it pass the House mostly with Democratic votes.

But a new Washington Post/Pew Research poll makes you wonder who these austerity-obsessed GOP lawmakers are speaking for: It finds that even a majority of Republicans say federal disaster aid does not need to be offset with cuts to other areas of government.

First, the toplines. The poll finds that 59 percent of Americans say “federal spending in response to natural disasters is emergency aid that does not need to be offset by cuts to other government programs.” Only 29 percent say such spending must be offset by cuts elsewhere.

The partisan breakdown of these numbers is striking. Republicans say disaster spending does not need to be offset by 52-36. Even Republicans who agree with the Tea Party say the same thing by 49-42.

This mirrors another recent Post poll, which found that a majority of Republicans, 54 percent, disapprove of the spending cuts being imposed by sequestration, while only 39 percent of them approve.

Look, the story here is the same as always: Americans regularly tell pollsters that they favor federal spending cuts and oppose government spending in the abstract. But when the talk turns to specifics, they suddenly take a more balanced view, one that quickly jettisons the notion of austerity for its own sake. This is often true even of Republicans.

Yet GOP officials remain in thrall to the Paul Ryan fiscal blueprint, which purports to balance the budget in 10 years with no new revenues — something that would wipe out large swaths of the federal government. Republican Congressional officials continue to claim the sequester cuts as a victory. And many of them are ideologically opposed to federal aid for disaster relief unless it is balanced by equivalent cuts elsewhere. It all reveals the degree to which the GOP is hostage to a vision — one dedicated to shrinking government for its own sake — that is far outside the mainstream. Including, at times, even among Republican voters.

* GOP CONGRESSMAN CONFRONTS REALITY OF SEQUESTER: Relatedly, a telling moment from a town hall meeting with GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who is adamantly in favor of the sequester cuts, even if they hurt his own district:

Earlier this month, a friend and former campaign volunteer stood up at one of the town hall meetings to tell Mulvaney that the defense cuts had cost him his job of five years with a large defense contractor. “I just want you to know that these cuts are real and they hurt me,” said Jeffrey Betsch, a single father of three daughters, who was on the verge of being evicted from his home.

Mulvaney’s response: “I don’t see how you wipe out 40 cents of spending on every dollar and not have someone get hurt.”

* ECONOMY IS SURPRISINGLY STRONG IN 2013: Rising home prices, buoyed consumer confidence, falling gas prices, and other indicators suggest the recovery is proving significantly more robust than expected. The austerians will claim this proves that government spending cuts, such as those produced by the sequester, does not hurt the economy, but note this:

“All else being equal, growth in 2013 should be better than 2012, because the headwinds holding it back are diminishing,” said Michelle Girard, chief economist of RBS. “The impact of the fiscal drag isn’t things getting worse, it’s the absence of things getting much better.”

In other words, Congressionally imposed austerity is still preventing full takeoff.

* HARRY REID PREDICTS IMMIGRATION REFORM WILL PASS SENATE: In an interview with local Nevada TV, the Senate Majority Leader says:

“I think we have 60 votes. Remember, we start out at 55 Democrats. I think the  most I’ll lose is two or three. Let’s say I wind up with 52 Democrats. I only  need eight Republicans, and I already have four, so that should be pretty easy.”

If true, this would rebut claims by GOP Senators such as Marco Rubio that the bill needs to be shifted well to the right to pass the Senate. And it would mean House Republicans are going to be confronting a very difficult choice over whether to allow reform to move forward sooner rather than later.

* WSJ COMES OUT AGAINST SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: An interesting tell: The Wall Street Journal editorial page urges Republicans not to seek a special prosecutor to look into the IRS scandal, on the theory that ongoing Congressional hearings would be a better way to lay the “facts” of the story before the American public. Perhaps the WSJ is aware of the perils of overreach. Or perhaps the WSJ sees more political value in leaving the investigation in charge of folks who can leak stories designed to be damaging to Obama even if no evidence of presidential wrongdoing ever turns up later.

* TODAY IN GOP OBAMACARE OVERREACH: Glenn Kessler takes apart the comically dishonest NRCC claim that Obama put the IRS “in charge” of your health care, an assertion that is absurd enough on its face, but is also being used against Democrats who voted against the Affordable Care Act.

The broader political question is whether Republicans risk taking a scandal everyone can understand — the targeting of conservative groups — and muddying it up with ideological and political sounding gobbledygook by using it against the health law, in order to play to the base’s undying Obamacare repeal fantasies.

* STUDY: POLITIFACT SAYS REPUBLICANS LIE MORE: Via Dylan Byers, a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University finds:

PolitiFact rated 32% of Republican claims as “false” or “pants on fire,” compared to 11% of Democratic claims – a 3 to 1 margin. Conversely, Politifact rated 22% of Democratic claims as “entirely true” compared to 11% of Republican claims – a 2 to 1 margin.

A majority of Democratic statements (54%) were rated as mostly or entirely true, compared to only 18% of Republican statements. Conversely, a majority of Republican statements (52%) were rated as mostly or entirely false, compared to only 24% of Democratic statements.

Dog bites man…

* TOM COTTON FOR SENATE? Keep an eye on this one: Republicans are pressing GOP Rep. Tom Cotton to challenge Dem Senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas, at a time when some conservatives appear to believe Cotton represents the face of the GOP’s future. If Cotton, who thinks default would be good “medicine” for the U.S. and has pushed to punish family members of those who violate Iran sanctions, indeed represents tomorrow’s GOP, then we’re in for what Ed Kilgore recently described as years of “polarization and vicious partisan conflict.”

* AND HOW WILL THE REPUBLIC SURVIVE WITHOUT MICHELE BACHMANN? Millions of Americans weep hot tears as the four term Congresswoman from Minnesota releases a video message declaring that she will not run for reelection next year, at a time when she is reportedly under investigation relating to her 2012 campaign.

Perhaps the most fitting sendoff for Bachmann is that gay marriage recently became legal in Minnesota, deeply saddening Bachmann, who introduced an original anti-marriage equality measure and fought for years against the inevitable with something approaching religious fervor.

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.
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Greg Sargent | May 28, 2013