February 19, 2013

Liberals seem to have convinced themselves they will wriggle free from the Obama sequester. They see weakness and capitulation from the Republicans around every corner. The Republicans? They aren’t bothering to talk much about it. As far as they are concerned it is a foregone conclusion. What accounts for the gap in perception?

A good deal of this arises from how the two sides interpreted the fiscal cliff deal. The Democrats concluded that Republicans will always fold, citing the prior aversion to a tax rate hike. They believe the president’s own rhetoric that he is a mighty influential guy. So they may genuinely feel that he is perpetually in command.


President Obama (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

More likely, however, is that the lefty bloggers and pundits are practicing wish fulfillment. They can’t point to any sign of weak-kneedness; to the contrary, Republicans are overwhelmingly copacetic with the sequester. Mike Long, spokesman for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy told me this morning, “The president proposed the sequester with full knowledge of what would happen if it went into effect — and he then worked to undermine the supercommittee from producing any kind of solution. House Republicans have attempted twice to replace the automatic cuts that make up the president’s sequester. The Senate has yet to act, and the president’s demand for more tax increases to replace his cuts is a non-starter.”

That is the uniform view among House Republicans: Either the sequester or an alternative package of cuts will go through.

In conversations with House and Senate offices over the last couple of weeks, not a single one has expressed the desire to block the sequester; there is no Plan B in the offing this time. There are a couple GOP senators nervous about the defense cuts, but these lawmakers have no mechanism for overturning the sequester, most especially since they also oppose more tax hikes.

When liberal partisans argue that the other side “must” be nervous or in trouble without citing any evidence of such, you can bet some serious self-delusion is going on. The Republicans learned a different lesson than Democrats from the fiscal cliff. Most House Republicans in retrospect realize voting down Plan B was an unforced error. So one lesson is in sticking together and not making their leaders look foolish. But the broader lesson was some political physics: Objects (or legislation) at rest remain at rest unless acted upon by a force. In other words, they can’t get President Obama to do much (e.g. stop the Bush tax cuts from expiring as set forth in existing law) but they can stand their ground. Lacking sufficient force (the Democrats have only one house of Congress), the president has difficultly moving Republicans to upset existing law (e.g. the Budget Control Act).

Inertia has its place in politics. It gave Obama the upper hand in the fiscal cliff deal because doing nothing would have been unfathomable for the GOP (i.e. everyone’s taxes would have gone up). Now the inertia works for Republicans; doing nothing gets them the remainder of the spending cuts spelled out in the 2011 Budget Control Act. So they sit back. It is the president flailing away, trying to get them to change his own creation.

Are they concerned about defense? Yes. But there is no movement, none whatsoever, to substitute the sequester cuts with revenue. House Speaker John Boehner’s communications director reiterated to me today, “Americans know that if they give President Obama more tax revenue, he isn’t going to use it to reduce the deficit; he’s going to spend it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused the president of overplaying his hand with dire predictions about the consequences of the sequester. In a written statement, McConnell argued, “Today’s event at the White House proves once again that more than three months after the November election, President Obama still prefers campaign events to common sense, bipartisan action. Surely the President won’t cut funds to first responders when just last year Washington handed out an estimated $115 billion in payments to individuals who weren’t even eligible to receive them, or at a time when 11 different government agencies are funding 90 different green energy programs. That would be a terrible and entirely unnecessary choice by a President who claims to want bipartisan reform.”

On a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being metaphysical certainty that the sequester will go through (or a set of cuts equal in size), I would put the sequester at a 9. If you include the potential that the sequester will be tweaked only to give room for appropriations to direct cuts within departments you get darn close to 10.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.