So what’s the endgame in the fiscal fight? Ron Fournier asks White House and GOP aides to be candid about where they really see this battle going, and gets some revealing answers:
White House aides: The president keeps the channels of communication open to GOP lawmakers, a process that began over a high-cholesterol dinner last week. House and Senate pass disparate budgets and send them to a conference committee. A bipartisan group of senators, including those bending Obama’s ear, strike a deal. The Senate approves it, putting enormous pressure on the GOP-controlled House. That pressure is, effectively, political cover: Enough Republicans feel safe enough to cross party lines and join Democrats on a deal.
GOP House aides: This week’s opening bids from Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray are strategically distasteful. Obama offers a budget in April that hints at serious entitlement reform. The president’s approval ratings continue to drop, putting pressure on Democrats to cut spending deeper than they would like, in order to protect the rest of the White House agenda. That allows a small but significant number of GOP lawmakers to back new taxes couched as reform.
The good news is that top GOP aides, when promised anonymity, are willing to talk about raising taxes a second time (they would spin it as broader tax reform) — but only if Democrats move much further on spending cuts and entitlements.
Careful readers will note something important here: The endgames envisioned by both sides — Republicans included — require the GOP to accept the need to give on revenues in order to get entitlement cuts. It’s good to see it admitted forthrightly that the only conceivable way to a deal, as I’ve been arguing, is for Republicans to concede this point. But the way this is couched is revealing, and demonstrates another overlooked reason compromise is so hard: Republicans say they want entitlement cuts, but they want Dems to own them.
As Fournier notes, the way the endgame would work in Republicans’ dreams is that Obama’s approval ratings would continue to drop as the sequester damages the economy, making him so desperate for a deal to replace the sequester that Dems would have no choice but to offer up significant entitlement reforms, at which point a small number of Republicans would have the cover they need to agree to a deal with new revenues under the guise of “tax reform.” In this scenario, Dems would have their fingerprints all over the entitlement cuts and any deal would presumably pass both houses mostly with Dem support.
The problem with this scenario is that Republicans have already poisoned this well by demagoguing relentlessly on Medicare cuts for two straight election cycles. Republicans made their attacks on Obamacare’s Medicare cuts central to dozens and dozens of Congressional and Senate races in 2010, and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan attacked Obama for cutting Medicare for months throughout 2012 in ads, in speeches, and on the stump. Dems know — or should know — that if they take ownership of the entitlement cuts Republicans say they want, GOP strategists will not hesitate to attack them again over them in 2014 and 2016. GOP conduct over the last two cycles is a strong disincentive — or should be, anyway — against Dems doing such a thing. And so, if Dems really do decide to go the “Grand Bargain” route, Dems will likely insist that Republicans co-own entitlement reform and won’t fall into the trap of owning it themselves.
It’s true that Paul Ryan just rolled out a budget yesterday that deeply slashes entitlements, and it’s true that he’ll get savagely attacked by Dems for it. But that plan is of course going nowhere. For Republicans the real action in terms of how entitlement cuts will be used politically will turn on what, if anything, actually passes. Remember, Ryan rolled out similar plans to voucherize Medicare two years in a row — and that didn’t stop Republicans from attacking Dems over the Medicare cuts that actually passed into law as part of Obamacare.
If you doubt that Republicans don’t really want to have their fingerprints on the entitlement cuts they say they want, just check out this nugget from today’s big Politico piece, which explains why some Republicans may prefer the sequester to any compromise to avert it:
The prevailing view among House Republicans is that they have finally won the cuts they spent years fighting for and see little reason to tick off senior voters by cutting entitlements while also ticking off the base with new taxes. In truth, many Republicans aren’t very motivated themselves to start messing with entitlements if they don’t have to.
This is what all the nonsense you keep hearing from Republicans about whether Obama’s outreach is “serious” or “genuine” is really about. When Republicans say they’re “skeptical” that his outreach will amount to any “real,” as they’re doing right now, what they really mean is that they won’t be happy until they see him propose entitlement cuts in a way that will give the President and Democrats — and not Republicans — ownership of them.