Boehner: Go Ahead, Cut Defense. I Don’t Care!

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Photo: Mary-Louise Price; Photos: 20th Century Fox (Speed still), Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images (Boehner), JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images (Obama)

As the next round of the fiscal showdown takes shape, John Boehner has made what is either a very big move or a very big bluff. In an interview with Wall Street Journal editorial writer Stephen Moore, the House Speaker asserted that his side is perfectly willing to let the automatic budget cuts set up in the summer of 2011 to take effect. Pay very close attention to what Boehner is saying here:

The Republicans' stronger card, Mr. Boehner believes, will be the automatic spending sequester trigger that trims all discretionary programs—defense and domestic. It now appears that the president made a severe political miscalculation when he came up with the sequester idea in 2011.

As Mr. Boehner tells the story: Mr. Obama was sure Republicans would call for ending the sequester—the other "cliff"—because it included deep defense cuts. But Republicans never raised the issue. "It wasn't until literally last week that the White House brought up replacing the sequester," Mr. Boehner says. "They said, 'We can't have the sequester.' They were always counting on us to bring this to the table."

Mr. Boehner says he has significant Republican support, including GOP defense hawks, on his side for letting the sequester do its work. "I got that in my back pocket," the speaker says. He is counting on the president's liberal base putting pressure on him when cherished domestic programs face the sequester's sharp knife. Republican willingness to support the sequester, Mr. Boehner says, is "as much leverage as we're going to get."

Okay, what’s going on here? When Boehner and Obama stalemated over the budget in 2011, they agreed to institute a trigger, starting in 2013, to create automatic deficit reduction. Since Republicans would never allow the trigger to include higher revenue, Obama insisted that the cuts exempt most anti-poverty programs and fall heavily on defense.

Obama assumed that the prospect of huge cuts to the military would frighten at least some Republicans. The design of the automatic cuts, or “sequestration,” was to pit elements of the Republican coalition against each other — specifically, to force pro-military Republicans to break from anti-tax absolutists. And indeed, the party’s defense hawks have loudly decried the cuts and called for replacing them with a “balanced solution” — which means a mix of higher tax revenue and lower spending on retirement programs, which is also Obama’s position.

Boehner doesn’t want that. He wants to replace the automatic cuts with cuts to retirement programs and zero new revenue. Now, Obama almost surely would never accept that. So the leverage game here centers on which party finds the automatic cuts more painful.

Boehner is asserting that Republicans don’t actually care that much about cutting defense — that replacing the sequester is something Democrats want. Just because Boehner says this doesn’t make it true. He may be holding his defense hawks in line publicly, but the question is whether he can keep them in line as the negotiations proceed and the prospect of implementing the cuts grows more real.