Yesterday, Republican Representative Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray announced a mini budget deal. Two interesting things to note: It is a better deal for Republicans than Democrats. And at the moment, Republicans seem more upset about it than Democrats are.
They’re upset because the deal provides temporary relief from some sequestration cuts -- about half of the scheduled cuts in 2014, and less than that in 2015. Last night, I heard a powerful conservative activist argue that all in all, this is a good deal for Republicans: The cuts it locks in are matters of law, not discretionary, so Republicans won’t get rolled in the 2016 appropriation process the way that Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush did. Nonetheless, rumor has it that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t vote for it.
Sequestration was a major tactical error by Democrats, who thought that they were safe in agreeing to domestic discretionary spending cuts as long as those cuts were paired with defense cuts; eventually, everyone would go back to the negotiating table and undo both. It turns out that Republicans aren’t as attached to huge military spending as they used to be, which seemed obvious to me even at the time that deal was made. Republicans are very happy to see defense cuts if they also guarantee cuts in other parts of government. That gave them a strong hand in the negotiations, and that’s why they came out with more than Democrats did: some relief on the cuts, but no new taxes or spending increases such as further extending unemployment benefits.
But if they do nothing at all, many reason, they get all the sequestration cuts. Why trade them away?
To avoid another showdown. Though I, too, would like government to shrink, I think this is the right policy trade-off; shutdowns are making it harder and harder to talk about rational budget policy in this town. And tactically, I think this is a clear win for the Republican Party. The last thing they need right now is to take the focus off the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and revive Obama’s flagging poll numbers with an ill-timed budget battle. Their best shot at a budget they really like is, after all, to retake the Senate in 2014.
One hopes that Congressional Republicans understand that, too. You’ll see folks like McConnell vote against it, but that’s a free vote for them; McConnell’s party doesn’t control his chamber. In the House, however, Ryan and John Boehner ought to be able to coax the caucus along to a majority “yes” vote -- at least if the caucus is rationally attuned to the best interests of their party. Of course, some days that looks like a pretty big “if.”