Without the Debt Ceiling or Shutdown, What Will Republicans Use As Leverage Now?

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2011 Getty Images

The Republican vision for budget negotiations always involved using — in their ubiquitous term — “leverage,” which would allow them to pry favorable terms from President Obama without agreeing to do anything unpleasant in return. Some of that leverage turns out to have been a useless bluff (the debt ceiling) or buffoonish anti-leverage (a government shutdown). But the last piece of it remains in place: budget sequestration. As the fiscal standoff is defused of its frightening political and economic consequences and returns to ordinary negotiating, that piece now occupies center stage.

President Obama’s stance is that he would like to make a deal replacing sequestration, which both parties oppose, with a combination of cuts to retirement programs and closing tax deductions. (Some liberal Democrats oppose this trade.) The Republican position is almost completely unanimous: They oppose this trade. Instead, they're offering to take the deal Obama is putting on the table, but without any higher revenue at all.

Mitch McConnell and The Wall Street Journal editorial page both float versions of this “deal,” insisting that Obama show his good faith by giving Republicans cuts to Medicare and Social Security without demanding any revenue increase to balance it off. Numerous Republicans have convinced themselves that it’s plausible Obama will go for it. George Will buoyantly described the coming deal as, “We will lighten up on the sequester caps, giving Democrats billions to spend now in exchange for trillions cut in the out years.”

That is a correct description of the terms of the debate: In exchange for a temporary increase of a few billion dollars in spending, Republicans are asking for a permanent cut of trillions in spending, from programs so popular Republicans would never dare enact the cuts themselves without Democratic cover. But why would Democrats agree to cut trillions in return for billions? Well, they wouldn’t. It’s a terrible, terrible deal.

Sequestration was originally conceived of as an automatic deficit-reducing tool that would force both sides to compromise on some kind of long-term deficit reduction. The concession to Republicans was that it wouldn’t increase taxes. The concession to Democrats was that it would exempt social insurance programs like Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and Obamacare, and hit defense especially hard.

It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans depicted sequestration as a horror show. It’s “harmful,” said John Boehner months ago, “The sequester is bad policy. It's taking a meat-ax approach to cutting government spending.” Republicans labeled it the “Obamaquester.”

After months and months of decrying sequestration as Obama’s cruel meat ax, they’ve since decided it could be worse: 

Now they think sequestration has real charms. It’s spending cuts! They love spending cuts! Indeed, Republicans now portray sequestration as a beloved feature, one which they will part with only for a dear price.

Now, it is true that Republicans have impressively managed to turn this negotiating position into something resembling an actual conviction. The Republican Party now embraces sequestration even while sometimes still assailing it as horrible policy. The real appeal to the GOP is that Obama doesn’t like it. As McConnell candidly says, “Keeping the BCA [Budget Control Act] levels is a huge success, and I know because Democrats hate it.” Aside from any policy details, Republicans really want to stick it to Obama. Keeping in place policies Obama hates makes them happy, irrespective of the content of those policies. That is a real form of leverage.

But if Republicans really loved sequestration as policy, they wouldn’t be desperately shopping around plans to get rid of it. They wouldn’t have to assure their members they’ll get rid of it soon. And they'd be able to pass Appropriations bills detailing the cuts under sequestration -- they can't do that, either.

Republicans aren’t completely bluffing on sequestration, the way they were with the debt ceiling, but they are basically bluffing. They're not bluffing about hating taxes more than anything. That part is true. The solution to the impasse, if there is one, will involve muddling through with small cuts here or there to reduce a small amount of sequestration. The Republican plan to trade billions of sequestration cuts for trillions of entitlement cuts? That's almost as unrealistic as Ted Cruz's Obamcare shutdown plan.