Congressional Republicans are bruised, but far from beaten on the budget.
Their poll numbers are abysmal. GOP leaders feud about how to reinvent their brand. President Obama plays on this disarray, pressuring them in last week’s State of the Union address to find an alternative to the $85 billion worth of across-the-board “sequestration” cuts slated to begin March 1. And House Speaker John Boehner lamented last week that every time he has engaged Obama in high-profile budget and tax talks, “it’s my rear end that got burnt.”
In the wake of his solid reelection victory last November and the liberal economic agendas showcased in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses, Obama appears to hold a commanding edge over his Republican rivals. But the House Republican majority seems content to weather the criticism and play rope-a-dope for now. For all the anxieties about economic impact of the sequester, the GOP opposes the White House substitute of raising tax revenues by tinkering with loopholes and deductions.
Congressional Republicans are making the strategic bet that Americans can stomach another round of fighting, despite the gauzy talk by some about needing to deliver results and work with the White House. It’s a gamble that could define the next year and the party’s identity in a way that rebranding and TV advertisements cannot.
“No matter what the polls say, they’re a long way from the [next] election and they’re not afraid to make unpopular decisions,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a prominent voice among House Republicans “A lot of Republicans would be more concerned if we didn’t stand and fight.”
Formerly the fourth ranking Republican in the House, Cole isn’t known for being politically shortsighted. He correctly noted during the fiscal cliff debacle last year that the GOP would be obliged to accept the tax rate increases being pushed by Obama as part of a deal, since tax rates would otherwise increase for everyone.
On the sequester and budget battles to follow, he argues that the GOP has the political advantage, even if the signs indicate it doesn’t have public opinion on its side. These cuts—which the administration warns will damage national security, law enforcement, airline safety, and the economy—are already baked into the law, so the onus is on Obama to provide them with an acceptable substitute that doesn’t include more tax increase.
“They think the sequester will be so difficult that Republicans will collapse. In that way, they’re misreading Republicans,” Cole told The Fiscal Times late last week. “I would not underestimate, if I were a Democrat, the bravery, the resilience of this conference.”
But this approach has possible downsides in the months ahead.
With Congress in recess this week, Boehner has put the onus on the Democratic-majority Senate to both propose an alternative to the sequester and pass its first budget in four years and is reluctant to truck across Pennsylvania Avenue for more talks on the sequester and the budget.
Nothing coming out of the Senate or the White House will bring either side closer to compromise.
“When you look what at Senate Democratic plan and the president’s plan – both very balanced plans that get some savings in this deficit fight from spending cuts, and some savings from increased revenues,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on CBS’s “Face The Nation” on Sunday. “What our friends in the House have told us is that they will not even consider anything that includes increased revenues. Not even closing loopholes for corporate jets; closing loopholes for oil and gas companies.”
Should the Senate approve a budget—and most signs indicate it will—the GOP will then have to find a way resolve their own conflicting goals: surpluses in 10 years, no new tax revenues, minimize military cuts, no reductions to Medicare and Social Security benefits for existing seniors.
Democrats see that goal as disastrous, requiring a slash-and-burn approach that would upend the economy and infuriate voters.
Kenneth Baer, a former chief spokesman and policy adviser for Obama’s Office of Management and Budget, said last week that: “They say they want a budget that’s going to balance in a ten-year window, which, without any new revenue I think you’re looking at cutting upwards of between a sixth and a third of all government spending.”
“It’s just sort of not realistic, especially not with the [budgetary] commitments that we have that are only growing as the baby boomers retire,” Baer told the Fiscal Times.
Some Republicans see a downside to aggressively challenging the president on the budget and tax issues in the wake of the GOP’s sorry showing in the November election, and are counseling a more flexible approach to resolving disputes over the sequester, taxes and the deficit.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he “would be glad to close some loopholes,” but that the leadership needed to start with Obama.
Others note the value of House Republicans taking a more conciliatory stance with the White House, since it would give them the kinds of results that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said voters expect.
If the Republicans are wise, said Eric Ueland, a former chief of staff for the Senate Republican leadership, “They’re not swinging for the fences on everything, while [they] kind of come up with digestible and understandable proposals that make sense inside the fiscal conversation.”
The question is whether voter pressure will be enough to shift the current GOP resistance. Pressure is building with 51 percent of Republican voters disapproving of their party’s efforts in Congress, according to a Feb.8 poll by Quinnipiac University.
Fox News found in a survey this month that more Republicans view Congress unfavorably than Democrats. And according to a Jan. 16 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 50 percent of GOP voters say their congressional leaders are doing “too little” to compromise with President Obama. Just 27 percent say it’s the “right amount.”
The concept that Republicans aren’t doing enough could haunt them in the weeks ahead. Robert D. Reischauer, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, said Boehner put his party in a jam by challenging the Senate Democrats to lay down a plan for blunting the sequester.
Their approach ensures that either Senate Republicans will have to block the Democratic plan from passing via threat of filibuster, or the House will then invite public wrath by voting down the measure.
“In a way,” Reischauer said, “what Boehner has done is create a bigger problem for the Republicans from the standpoint of public opinion.”