A fight is brewing on the right, between anti-tax zealots and big military types over who takes the next hit in the continuing fight over deficits. The prospect excites progressives, who see a rare opportunity to force the GOP to slaughter one of their sacred cows, and rip the party apart in the process.
But the left is poised for a similar internal battle.
The tensions on both sides of the aisle were set in motion by the debt deal, which created a powerful, bipartisan deficit committee tasked with finding over $1 trillion in savings over the next 10 years. If it gridlocks, though, it will trigger automatic spending cuts, including about half a billion dollars from defense.
If Democrats demand higher tax revenues as the price of any bipartisan deal, Republicans will have to choose whether to accept them (and alienate a huge chunk of the party) or reject them in favor of the defense cuts (and alienate a huge chunk of the party).
Enter Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who yesterday complicated the Democrats’ calculus.
“We’re already taking our share of the discretionary cuts as part of this debt-ceiling agreement, and those are going to be tough enough,” Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday. “I think anything beyond that would damage our national defense.”
He said savings need to come from entitlement programs and from higher taxes — not further defense cuts. In effect, that puts the six Democrats who will soon be appointed to the committee on notice: don’t screw around with this.
Democrats are now demanding clarity from the White House: does President Obama think Medicare and Social Security can be cut by $500 billion over 10 years, but the bloated defense budget can not?
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) put the question to Obama in a Friday letter.
“I urge you to make clear that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did not speak for the Administration when he stated yesterday that additional spending cuts, beyond those in the recent debt-ceiling agreement, should come from non-discretionary spending such as Social Security and Medicare while the military budget is spared,” Frank wrote.
The key to all of this, of course, remains the GOP’s steadfast commitment to never raising a single new dime of revenue. While Panetta made clear that the consequence of GOP intransigence on this score will have a deleterious effect on U.S. security, he also made it harder for Dems to stand firm and let penalties kick in if Republicans don’t bend.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.