June 27, 2011

President Obama will meet with congressional leaders today in an attempt to revive the debt-limit talks that broke down last week over the Democrats’ insistence that any deal must include tax increases. The president knows full well that Republicans are not backing down on taxes — but he is using the issue to extract other concessions, such as getting the GOP to back his plan for massive and irresponsible reductions in defense spending. Will Republicans walk right into his trap?

Critics say Republicans are being unreasonable in rejecting any tax hikes. In an editorial last week,The Post called GOP leaders “childish and irresponsible” and pointed out that Democrats have agreed to accept $2 trillion in spending cuts while Republicans are refusing to accept any tax increases in exchange. “Where is the Republican flexibility?” the paper asked.

Let’s be clear: Compromise here isn’t spending cuts for a tax increase; compromise is spending cuts for a debt-limit increase. Republicans elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 campaigned on a promise to reduce the national debt. They are now being asked to turn around a half a year later and vote to raise the national debt. The vast majority of Republican voters don’t want them to raise the debt limit at all. The only way these Republican legislators can vote for a debt-ceiling increase without getting thrown out of office is to show their constituents that they secured unprecedented cuts in current spending — and ironclad constraints on future spending — in exchange. Tax increases? They are not even part of the equation.

Yet Republicans are letting the Democrats use the tax issue to extract concessions. GOP leaders need to realize that they are the ones with the leverage in these negotiations. What are Democrats going to say if GOP leaders simply refuse to go along with their demand for tax hikes or give them defense cuts in exchange? “Sorry, Mr. Speaker, no deal — let the country default”? Of course not. President Obama does not have the luxury of letting the debt-limit talks fail and then blaming the GOP for a government default. If the dire predictions of his treasury secretary are to be believed, the consequences of a default would be so calamitous that Obama cannot allow it to happen. He must sign whatever debt-limit increase Republicans give him.

This means Republicans hold all the cards. So why on earth are they even thinking about giving Obama deep cuts in national defense in exchange for dropping his demand for tax increases that he knows he will never get? In November, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that even a 10 percent cut from the Pentagon budget, roughly $55 billion, would be “catastrophic” to the U.S. military. Obama has already cut more than $400 billion in defense programs since taking office, and he has proposed an additional $400 billion in defense cuts over the next 10 years.

As Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out, if these cuts are enacted, the Obama administration will have chopped more than $800 billion from the Pentagon’s previously planned spending. In other words, our men and women in uniform will effectively be paying for Obama’s failed stimulus with cutbacks in needed equipment, training and force structure. Is that really what the GOP wants to do? Pay for the stimulus on the backs of our military? If Republicans really aspire to be constitutional conservatives, their first responsibility is to provide for the common defense. Congressional Republicans should not be a party to Obama’s plan to hollow out our military — they should fight it.

Far from giving Obama deep cuts in national defense, Republicans should the ones making the demands in these negotiations — including more domestic spending cuts and a balanced-budget amendment that will force the government to live within its means. If Democrats balk and the Aug. 2 deadline set by the Treasury Department arrives without an agreement, so be it. The sky will not fall. Republicans can simply pass a small, temporary debt-ceiling increase — and attach some of the $2 trillion in spending cuts the Democrats reportedly accepted in the negotiations led by Vice President Biden.

If the Democrats still won’t sign on to an acceptable agreement when that temporary debt-limit increase runs out, Republican leaders can pass another small increase with still more of these spending cuts attached. And if Democrats still don’t agree when that temporary debt-limit increase runs out, Republicans can pass temporary increases with spending cuts attached again . . . and again . . . and again.

Democrats will cry foul, but in the end, the Democrat-controlled Senate will pass, and President Obama will sign, every temporary increase the House approves — because the alternative is unthinkable. The message from Speaker John Boehner should be: The GOP will not allow the government to default — but Republicans will not raise the debt limit without deep cuts in federal spending. And Republicans will not raise taxes or hollow out our military — period.

Republicans have something the president not only wants but something he desperately needs. They need to stop negotiating with themselves and looking for ways to capitulate to the Democratic demands, and start using their unprecedented leverage to extract concessions from the other side.