Republican leaders in Congress have all but reneged on a key agreement they reached with the White House last summer rather than reconsider their unwavering stance against new tax revenue.
Relations between the Obama administration and the congressional GOP were already just about as bad as can be. But even so, this sets a precedent future Congresses and White Houses will remember when partisan mismatches force them to strike deals and govern.
“I’ve got concerns about the sequester,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday. “I’ve made that pretty clear. And replacing the sequester certainly has value. The defense portion of the sequester, in my view, would clearly hollow our military. The Secretary of Defense has said that, members of Congress have said it. But the question I would pose is, where’s the White House? Where’s the leadership that should be there to ensure that this sequester does not go into effect.”
“Sequester” is budget-speak for across-the-board cuts. But the cuts he’s talking about were part of a deal he recently claimed he’d honor. Here’s what he’s talking about.
In late July 2011, the federal government was nearly out of borrowing authority, marching toward default, and a deeply divided Congress couldn’t figure out how to raise the national debt limit.
The predicament was an outcome of the GOP’s strategy of using the threat of default as leverage to force Democrats to agree to deep cuts to federal aid programs. The GOP demanded a dollar-for-dollar match between guaranteed cuts and newly allotted borrowing authority. And they got most of what they wanted.
In the end they took about half the cuts up front, with the other half tied to the success or failure of the Super Committee, tasked with securing $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. The catch was that both parties needed an incentive to deal honestly — so GOP leaders and the White House agreed that if the Super Committee failed, it would result in $600 billion in automatic, across the board cuts to national security spending, and another $600 billion in domestic cuts, taken mostly from Medicare providers. With both Democratic and Republican sacred cows in line for slaughter, surely, the Super Committee members would reach a compromise.
Immediately after the Super Committee failed in November, rank and file Republicans began a campaign to swap out only the defense cuts with other spending cuts — no tax increases.
For a time, that was a rogue effort. On November 3, 2011, Boehner told reporters, “Me, personally? Yes, I would feel bound. It was part of the agreement, and so either we succeed or we’re in the sequester. The sequester is ugly. Why? Because we didn’t want anybody to go there. That’s why we have to succeed.”
Boehner’s Thursday comments came moments after Senate Republicans unveiled their plan to partially phase out the enforcement mechanism by reducing the federal workforce and freezing federal pay. Both developments indicate Republican leaders no longer regard their own deal as sacrosanct.
Now Boehner’s pressuring the White House to let Republicans off the hook for the piece of the deficit enforcement mechanism that was designed to make them negotiate in good faith. And Democrats are furious.
“Now we’re really talking skullduggery,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told reporters. “They understood what the consequences were. They agreed to the consequences, and they thought that they could walk away from all the deficit reduction that was possible in that and now say, well, forget about deficit reduction altogether when it comes to the defense budget. I think that an agreement was reached. It must be honored.”
This will be a huge piece of the defining election year fight on Capitol Hill — one that will test Democrats’ will to break the GOP’s anti-tax absolutism, and thus weigh heavily on the broader fight between the parties over the future of the social safety net.
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.