The drama around the $85 billion in federal government cuts due to start on March 1, known as the sequester, centers around one fundamental question: how much has President Obama’s victory in November changed the nation’s political dynamics on fiscal issues?
Since Election Day, President Obama has demanded Republicans back down from some of their strongest-held positions, arguing the American public handed him a mandate to rechart the country’s fiscal course by electing him a second time. Yes, the Republicans would allow higher taxes on the wealthy, Obama insisted, and the GOP eventually conceded. Yes, Republicans would allow the country to raise its debt limit without accompanying spend cuts, Obama insisted, and again the GOP relented.
With the sequester, the Republicans finally feel like they are in a fight they can win. They say the president, who is insisting the $85 billion in cuts this year be replaced by an agreement that includes both spending reductions and tax increases, can’t cast the GOP as a crazy, anti-tax party after Republicans just allowed a tax increase less than two months ago. And while allowing the sequester to occur could result in thousands of layoffs and furloughs for workers, Republicans won’t be blamed for a full economic meltdown, which could have resulted from going over the federal debt limit. In fact, the GOP can point out, as party leaders are, that the sequester was originally proposed by top Obama aides.
This fiscal debate is also much different than the other two issues consuming Washington: gun control and immigration. Republicans have a strong incentive to reach a deal on immigration, rather than oppose Obama, as they view taking that issue off the table as a starting point to winning more Latino voters in future elections. And the president’s main legislative priority on gun control, passing universal background checks, does not target a fundamental Republican value.
On the sequester, both parties’ positions are much more hardened. Obama argues correctly that the majority of the voting public shares his view that deficit reduction plans should include a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. (He proposes either a minimum 30 percent tax on people making more than $1 million a year or limiting tax deductions for people who make more than $200,000.)
But for most Republican members of Congress, opposing tax increases and insisting on purely spending cuts is right in line with the views of their conservative constituents. For individual GOP members of Congress, the low polling ratings for both their party and Congress overall make no difference: the vast majority of Republicans in Congress easily won reelection in 2012 despite serving in the most unpopular, least productive Congress in a generation and will likely win again in 2014.
The argument over the $85 billion is in truth a proxy for a larger debate. In January, when many Republicans joined congressional Democrats in approving an increase in the tax rate for income above $400,000 each year, the GOP viewed that as a concession it would not make it again. It was not to set a precedent of raising taxes as part of future deficit reduction agreements, Republicans argued.
Obama said the exact opposite.
“I want to make clear that any agreement we have to deal with these automatic spending cuts that are being threatened for next month, those also have to be balanced, because, remember, my principle always has been let’s do things in a balanced, responsible way. And that means the revenues have to be part of the equation in turning off the sequester and eliminating these automatic spending cuts, as well as spending cuts,” he said on Dec. 31, on the eve of the fiscal cliff agreement in a speech that angered Republicans because it was so blunt about Obama’s pro-tax increase stand.
Obama always urges the two parties to meet in the middle, but that will be hard in this debate. Both sides agree that about $4 trillion in either spending cuts or tax increases over the next 10 years is required to stabilize the long-term budget deficit. Over the last two years, Obama and Congress have agreed to about $2.5 trillion in cuts and tax increases, leaving $1.5 trillion left.
Obama says about $600 billion of that gap should be plugged by provisions that would result in higher taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations. Republicans are calling for $0 in tax increases. The resolution will help determine if Republicans simply raised taxes once in early 2013, or if they are changing from the party that opposes all tax increases to a party, like the Democratic Party, that simply opposes most tax increases.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @PerryBaconJr.