October 31, 2013
Senator Patty Murray (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Senator Patty Murray (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

This week, as mandated by the recent deal to reopen the government, lawmakers are entering into budget talks to replace the sequester, whose spending cuts continue to lay like a wet blanket over the recovery. This week, the deficit fell to its lowest point in five years.

You’d think those two things would be related. Not in Washington. More specifically, not for Washington Republicans.

This morning, the signs continue that Republicans will not give any ground to Democrats who are requesting new revenues as part of a deal to replace the sequestration cuts at higher spending levels. But beyond this, it’s already clear that Republicans — again — are defining the terms of these talks so that the only “compromise” they will agree to is one in which only Dems are making concessions.

Here’s how one House GOP leadership aide puts it: “I’d say the two highest priorities are using oversight to continue to make the case against Obamacare, and using the budget conference to lock in the spending cuts we’ve achieved — without the tax hikes.”

And here’s how Paul Ryan’s opening statement to the budget conference committee put it: “If this conference becomes an argument about taxes, we’re not going to get anywhere. The way to raise revenue is to grow the economy.”

Here’s what you are going to hear in the days ahead from Republicans: We don’t need to make concessions to replace the sequester at higher spending levels, because it’s Democrats, not Republicans, who want to get rid of the sequester. But the key context here is that Republicans are on record as decrying the sequester cuts, too, particularly since they will fall more heavily on defense next year.

Ryan himself has said: “The truth is, there’s a better way to cut spending.” GOP Rep. Tom Cole has said: “Both sides want to deal with the sequester.” And House Armed Services Committee Republicans have said that sequestration “was never intended to be policy.” That’s why Cole and Republicans on that committee have called for revenues to be on the table — a position Ryan and GOP leaders reject.

As Ezra Klein has noted, there is an argument for Dems to drop the push for more taxes, provided they get something that will help the economy — like infrastructure spending — instead. And there are some signs the White House is willing to diverge from Congressional Dems on the taxes imperative, though it’s unclear how seriously to take this yet.

But the broader point here is that, whatever form it takes (whether new revenues or infrastructure spending), Democrats have leverage to insist that their priorities are met, too. Republicans are not the only ones with the leverage in these talks. Republicans will continue to hang on to sequester level spending with all they’ve got, because the sequester and Budget Control Act are the one big victory the GOP has won in the Obama era battles over the size and scope of government.

But on their side, Democrats have the falling deficit. What’s more, though Washington is consumed with how badly the Obamacare rollout is going for Democrats, the truth is that more Americans agree with Dems when it comes to getting the priorities and balance right on taxes and spending.  In these talks, Dems should remember that the public – and the falling deficit — are largely on their side.

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* HOUSE GOP PIVOTS FROM OBAMACARE TO OBAMACARE: David Drucker reports on the coming game plan for House Republicans:

Still smarting from a politically damaging government shutdown that hogged the spotlight and obscured problems with the Affordable Care Act, House Republicans have deliberately shifted strategies. Rather than instigate high-stakes, politically risky confrontations with President Obama, they have embraced a more traditional, low-key approach that focuses on achieving incremental conservative reforms. This legislative strategy has a second, equally important purpose: It’s unlikely to distract from the GOP’s aggressive investigation into Obamacare’s error-plagued implementation.

“People are focused on how bad Obamacare is. There’s no sense in putting up hyperpartisan bills that take attention away from that,” a senior Republican House aide told the Washington Examiner.

Okay, so the GOP will pivot from a stupid “hyper-partisan” strategy to undermine Obamacare to a smarter hyper-partisan strategy to undermine Obamacare. Look, there’s no excusing the rollout problem, which are awful. Accountability is required, and real Congressional oversight would absolutely be welcome here. But there’s no reason to believe Republicans are capable of supplying it.

* DEMS BOASTING NEW RECRUITING SUCCESSES: Michael Wines has a good overview of the newfound success Democrats are having in recruiting candidates for tough House races, just as DCCC chair Steve Israel recently predicted. The story reports that more recruits are to be announced soon.

Though it’s almost certain that the shutdown will fade from public memory, the new recruits Dems pick up as a result of it remain an advantage that Dems will carry all the way until Election Day 2014. The House still looks out of reach for Dems, but more crises remain a real possibility.

* ANOTHER OBAMACARE “HORROR STORY,” DEBUNKED: The Los Angeles Times does a nice job knocking down yet another tale, this one pushed by CNBC, of a supposedly terrible experience with Obamacare endured by a woman “losing” health coverage. The L.A. Times writer took the extreme step of actually checking up on her options under the law, and the result was this: “Better plans than she has now are available for her to purchase today, some of them for less money. ”

The puzzling thing on display here is the eagerness to hype a story reflecting badly on the law without even doing a rudimentary check into what the law actually means for the person it’s supposed to be hurting.

 * HOW BAD ARE OBAMACARE’S PROBLEMS? Ryan Lizza has an interesting interview with health care expert Jonathan Gruber on what it will mean if Obamacare’s problems continue. Right now, the problems don’t necessarily imperil the law. If they aren’t fixed by the end of November, that will screw a lot of people, at least in the short term, but the law will likely muddle through. But:

If the problems linger until late February, Gruber thinks we will reach DefCon 2. The law requires everyone to have health insurance by March 31, 2014, or face a penalty. Obviously, the government can’t tax people for failing to buy a product that is unavailable. In that case, Gruber said, “Obama will have to delay the individual mandate.”

The coverage of all of this will continue to be brutal. But remember: Presuming the web site does get fixed soon enough, the only thing that really matters over the long term is whether the overall policy works.

* BOTH SIDES TAKE BIG HIT IN POLLS: The new NBC/WSJ poll finds Obama’s approval rating at an all time low of 42 percent, but the GOP’s favorable ratings are also at a new low of 22 percent. Only 24 percent want full repeal of Obamacare — the GOP position — though another 28 percent want a “major overhaul” (which could go both ways).

As I expected, Obama has taken a hit from the shutdown mess and health law rollout, but Republicans continue to fare worse, suggesting the law’s problems aren’t the big political bonanza they claim. The Obamacare polling is broadly consistent with what polls have been saying for years.

* REPUBLICANS DON’T WANT LAWMAKERS TO COMPROMISE: One more tidbit from the NBC/WSJ poll: A plurality of Republicans, 47 percent, think their leaders should stick to their positions in the budget debate, rather than compromise. By contrast, a large majority of Dems, 68 percent, think their leaders should compromise rather than stick to principles.

That doesn’t bode well. If GOP leaders let the base set the agenda again, we’re probably not getting any budget deal, and will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis.

* AND TEA PARTY CAUSING “RIFT” WITHIN GOP: Bloomberg has an interesting piece reporting that GOP business-community donors are helping fund the Democratic candidate in the Georgia Senate race, Michelle Nunn, a sign of a “Republican Party rift between business and the Tea Party.” One business owner explicitly cites the government shutdown as the rationale.

For Dems, the Georgia Senate race, with its crowded Republican primary that could land the party with a Tea Party Congressman as its nominee, is emerging as a test of whether Tea Party extremism will continue saddling Republicans with Senate candidates that cost them winnable Senate seats.

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.