The Republican retreat from the fiscal brink now appears to be complete as Rep. Paul Ryan rejected use of the last two weapons at their disposal in efforts to wrangle more spending cuts out of Democrats and President Obama.
In an interview with David Gregory on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” Sunday, the powerful chairman of the House Budget Committee and 2012 GOP vice-presidential candidate said Republicans would not shut down the federal government when budgetary authority expires in late March. He also said the draconian automatic spending cuts agreed to in the debt-ceiling fiasco of summer 2011 would likely stand.
Both items are big news, because, remember, House Republicans already caved on the fiscal cliff. And this week, the House and Senate are expected to pass a bill extending the debt limit for another three months.
Both of those were supposed to be big leverage points for Republicans in their efforts to rein in spending. But the GOP leadership, scared of being blamed for the catastrophic effects of letting the country default, backed away from the precipice. Now, if they follow Ryan, it would amount to a bigger act of unilateral disarmament than anything we saw during the Cold War.
Here’s Ryan on a potential government shutdown:
We’re not interested in shutting the government down…On March 1st, spending goes down automatically.. We are more than happy to keep spending at those levels…into the future while we debate how to balance the budget, how to grow the economy, how to create economic opportunity.
And here’s what he said about the automatic spending cuts, or the so-called “sequester”:
We think those sequesters will happen because the Democrats have opposed our efforts to replace those cuts with others, and they’ve offered no alternatives.
That’s pretty extraordinary, and I see three potential takeaways:
- The sequester was supposed to force Democrats and Republicans to cut a deal on spending, because its cuts were so deep and indiscriminate. But the bipartisan Congressional “supercommittee” couldn’t come to an agreement, so the Sword of Damocles will fall. Ryan is conceding that a deadlocked Congress can’t solve the problem on its own.
- Ryan is also tacitly admittlng there are no more spending cuts in the near future and that the battle will be a long one. Democrats have pledged to write a budget this year, which they vow will include more revenue increases. Republicans adamantly oppose that, and Ryan will have to come up with a plan to balance the budget in ten years. He’ll need every dollar he can get to do that.
- This is a bad deal for Republicans, because not only are they surrendering their last bit of leverage and committing to a long, hard fight on popular grounds, the “sequester” actually favors Democrats. Ezra Klein called them “a bunch of very dumb — but extremely Democrat-friendly — spending cuts”:
The spending cuts would leave the main Democratic priorities untouched…So the sequester doesn’t touch Medicaid, Social Security or Pell grants. It exempts most programs for low-income Americans, like food stamps. Veteran’s benefits are home free, as are federal retirement benefits. Medicare providers see cuts, but Medicare beneficiaries don’t. And fully half of the cuts come from the military—a huge reduction in defense spending that Democrats couldn’t dream about achieving any other way.
Can there be any doubt President Obama’s take-no-prisoners strategy in the fiscal battle is working spectacularly for him? I don’t think it’s good for the country in the long run, but in Washington, where winning really is the only thing, he looks like he’s on the verge of complete victory here.