It might be the Democrats’ nightmare. If the super committee fails to come up with a way to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit, Republicans are all but promising to do everything they can to reverse or mitigate the cuts to national security spending that would be required by the sequester mechanism. And enough Democrats, to save face, might have to go along.
Some Democrats, including the White House, find this scenario to be rubbish. They believe the super committee’s failure puts Republicans on the spot to make a 2012 deal with Democrats, or else lose their cherished Bush-era income tax cuts that expire at the end of next year.
Who’s right? Depends on where you fall on couple of macro-political questions.
First: Is it more politically acceptable today to vote in favor of defense cuts?
The case for “yes” posits that, with the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the intense fervor for debt reduction, voters won’t hold a vote to cut defense spending against their member of Congress. It also means voters don’t automatically associate Republicans with national-security strength anymore. (After all, the defense-cut sequester—a 10 percent reduction—was supposed to be their incentive to come to a deal in the joint committee.). Plenty of tea party members are on the record as supporting defense cuts, too.
The case for “no” sees defense cuts as politically suicidal, particularly for the large number of Senate Democrats who are up for reelection. It’s certainly true that a number of prominent congressional Democrats don’t want to cut $650 billion over 10 years. So let’s assume the committee fails and sequestration kicks in. Democrats will face a war with Republicans over the 8 percent cut to nondefense discretionary spending. Republicans, led by Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have already said they’ll fight to restore defense spending. Assuming a budget comes out of the House without the defense sequester—a budget that would still have to slash $1.2 trillion, because of the Budget Control Act’s requirements—it faces uncertain sledding in the Senate.
But it’s possible that enough Democrats can be cowed into voting for it, lest they get tagged with being anti-defense. President Obama would almost certainly veto this legislation. And then the House and the Senate would have to overturn his veto. Whatever odds you assign to the previous set of actions, getting to a two-thirds vote in the Senate will be nearly impossible.
A second question: Are Republicans negotiating with an eye toward a possible Republican presidency and aiming to avoid anything that saddle their nominee with tax hikes or defense cuts he or she won’t be able to defend?
Implicitly, this assumes that when the next Congress is sworn in, in January 2013, Republicans will control the presidency and the House or Senate or both. With the advent of any new Congress, anything an old Congress does can be reversed. And $650 billion worth of defense spending, even if it is tacitly agreed to in 2012, can be a puff of smoke by 2013.
On taxes, it gets tricky. The super committee itself is structured to provide a strong disincentive to raise taxes—failure does not trigger new or increased taxes, only spending cuts. The Democrats like this because it leaves the Bush tax cuts as a clean issue, an issue that, looking at polling, they think they can handle. Republicans like it because it has given them little incentive to bargain with Democrats using revenue hikes.
The White House and Democrats might be inclined to take a deal that would let the Bush tax cuts expire in exchange for cutting defense spending by a much smaller amount, but the GOP nominee might not cotton to this, and the Democratic base, which is used to seeing their priorities deemed easier to disregard, might marshal opposition in the House.
If there is no deal—and even if there is a deal that’s politically difficult to accept—the political environment next year may determine who has more leverage. If the economy shows sign of recovery, Obama will. If his approval rating doesn’t lift any, Republicans, who aren’t going to get any lower in the polls, can find themselves with a fresh wind at their backs.
Dan Friedman and Billy House contributed