The sequester: What do Republicans want?

As deep spending cuts loom, analysts say the GOP's objectives remain puzzingly unclear

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has just about had it with his colleagues in the Senate, saying it's high time the upper chamber "gets off their ass" and passes a bill to replace the sequester, which is set to begin taking effect at the end of this week. The sequester, you will remember, is $1.2 trillion in spending cuts that will target the Defense Department and discretionary spending programs over the next 10 years, and do untold damage to the economy. "Where's the president's plan to avoid the sequester?" he asked on Tuesday. "Have you seen one? I haven't seen one. All I've heard is he wants to raise taxes again."

President Obama, of course, has proposed two plans that could be used to avoid the sequester, which the administration has warned will lead to a horror show of self-inflicted wounds across the nation, from job cuts to vaccination shortages to flight cancellations. (On Tuesday, federal immigration officials released hundreds of people suspected of entering the country illegally, saying the looming budget cuts were forcing them to reduce costs.) One is a modest, short-term package of spending cuts and tax revenues; the other is his long-term proposal to reduce the deficit by $1.8 trillion over 10 years, which the White House has insisted is still on the table. The long-term plan includes cuts to deficit-busting entitlement programs, as well as new revenue through closing tax loopholes.

In other words, Boehner has some options. Which has led Ezra Klein at The Washington Post to admit total bafflement, in a post titled "I don't understand the Republican position on the sequester":

As I understand it, the GOP has five basic goals in the budget talks:

1) Cut the deficit.

2) Cut entitlement spending.

3) Protect defense spending, and possibly even increase it.

4) Simplify the tax code by cleaning out deductions and loopholes.

5) Lower tax rates.

The White House is willing to cut a deal with Republicans that will accomplish 1, 2, 3, and 4. But Republicans don’t want that deal. They'd prefer the sequester to that deal. That means they will get less on 1, basically nothing [on] 2, 4, and 5, and they will actively hurt themselves on 3. So, rather than accomplishing four of their five goals, they’re accomplishing part of one. Some trade. [The Washington Post]

So what do Republicans want? Kevin Drum at Mother Jones says it all comes down to preventing new tax revenue:

I'm confused about the confusion. Republicans have been the anti-tax party for more than 30 years now. They've never been willing to trade tax increases for spending cuts, and they've been vocally, implacably dedicated to this during every budget showdown of the past three years. A deal that includes both spending cuts and tax increases is very much not a policy outcome they vastly prefer. [Mother Jones]

Jonathan Chait at New York agrees, and argues that the party is working against its own interests:

Deepening the bafflement is that the Republicans' apparent approach bears no relation either to political reality or to the party's stated goals. President Obama is offering up something — hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security and Medicare — that Republicans say they want and which (because of their unpopularity) they have proven unable to obtain even when they have had full control of government. They are instead undertaking a public showdown against a figure who is vastly more popular and trusted, who possesses a better platform to communicate his message, and whose message itself — spread the pain among rich and middle class alike, don't cut retirement programs more deeply than needed in order to protect tax loopholes for the rich — commands overwhelmingly higher public support. [New York]

Conservatives, however, argue that Obama's not serious enough about deficit reduction to compromise on taxes. As Conn Carroll at The Washington Examiner writes:

On spending, Obama has offered some very minor entitlement spending cuts in the form of Chained CPI and an increase in the Medicare eligibility age. But neither of these reforms would save much money or change the underlying incentives that drive increased spending. At best they amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and at worst they would make later reform of the programs more difficult.

The bottom line is that Republicans simply do not believe anything worthwhile can be accomplished on entitlement or tax reform while Obama is in office. So instead of wasting time on big ticket reforms that will never happen, Republicans are fighting to protect what little deficit reduction they’ve already accomplished through the sequester. [Washington Examiner]

For now, it appears Republicans will settle for the sequester itself, even though it is opposed by defense hawks within the party, GOP governors, and Republican moderates. As Dana Milbank at The Washington Post writes:

House Republicans have belatedly embraced the realization that if they do nothing at all, they will be rewarded on Friday with a 2.5 percent cut in all federal spending without coughing up a single dollar in tax increases. They have learned to stop worrying and love the sequester. [The Washington Post]


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