In the House of Representatives, Republicans claim they’ve braced themselves to let the full force of the sequester hit government programs of all kinds on March 1, defense most directly, rather than compromise with Democrats to replace it with a mix of more thoughtful cuts and higher taxes.
Whether all their chest puffing is an authentic sign of confidence or not, it’s designed to suggest that they are more prepared than Democrats to weather the political consequences: job losses, reduced economic output, lower profits for key stakeholders.
Democrats by contrast are saying they want to avoid the sequester, if only in brief spurts.
“What we think would be a better effort would be to move forward and, on short increments, pay for the sequestration,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told reporters at his weekly Capitol press availability on Tuesday.
But Democrats aren’t just auditioning to play foil to the GOP.
At the same press conference Reid tipped his hand to his party’s subtler strategy.
“There are many low-hanging pieces of fruit out there that Republicans have said they agreed on previously,” Reid added. “I’m not going to go into detail, but one of them, of course, is deal with oil companies.”
That’s a tip of the hand. As the sequestration deadline approaches at the end of next month, Republicans will be be stuck with an absolutist line. Letting the sequester hit would be better than replacing it with even a penny of revenue; and their offer, from the last Congress, is to replace the entire sequester largely with deep cuts to social programs for the poor.
Democrats will have a counteroffer. Perhaps the parties can’t agree on a complete sequester replacement. But they can pay it down for a few months with popular cuts and revenue raisers, including by eliminating tax subsidies for oil companies.
“[T]here’s a lot of things we can do out there, and we’re going to make an effort to make sure that … sequestration involves revenue,” Reid added. “Remember, the American people still believe, by an overwhelming margin, that the rich should contribute to this. They believe that Medicare shouldn’t be whacked. They believe domestic discretionary spending has been hit very hard already. They believe that there could be a better way of dealing with defense than this meat cleaver that sequestration does.”
This is another way of saying the Democrats will attempt to clarify both the stakes and the parties’ positions to voters and incumbent interests — to signal to voters that Republicans would rather cut spending on programs for the poor than raise even a small amount of revenue by ending subsidies for oil companies; and to signal to the defense industry leaders that their long-time GOP allies will abandon them rather than tax oil companies even a little bit. In fact, Republicans’ position amounts to telling defense contractors that they’ll happily threaten their profits unless Democrats agree to cut social insurance programs.
It’s yet another reason to suspect the GOP’s bluster about the sequester is simply that.
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.