What Does the GOP Really Want?

The Atlantic

Now that the sequester has settled in, we've learned that Republicans do not feel much urgency to protect defense spending. After President Obama's dinner diplomacy failed to produce a grand bargain, it doesn't look like they were after party invitations. And, now, we're learning that Republicans aren't all that enthusiastic about entitlement reform, either. As it becomes a whole lot clearer what Republicans don't want (any new taxes), Obama has returned to sulking about the incalcitrance of the G.O.P.

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 "Ultimately, it may be that the differences are just too wide," Obama told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "It may be that, ideologically, if their position is, 'We can’t do any revenue,' or, 'We can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid,' if that’s the position, then we’re probably not going to be able to get a deal." 

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Writing today, Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen argue that the reason for the latest stalemate on fiscal policy is rooted in a strategic miscalculation the fiscal cliff negotiations at the end of last year: by making a deal on the expiring Bush tax cuts (they were left in place for individuals making less than $400,000) and delaying the sequester until March, Obama blew his best chance to get further concessions from  Republicans on raising revenue. Letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy will produce an additional $600 billion in tax increases, but that'a a lot less than the $1.6 trillion Obama wanted, and now Republicans say that discussion is over . "Once Republicans swallowed the $600 billion in hikes, they made plain they were done raising taxes for this Congress. And they really are done, Republicans say," Politico says.

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And why is that? A grand bargain would theoretically be a compromise in which both sides would give up something they like in exchange for something they like more. Theoretically, Obama would allow entitlement cuts to get tax increases, Republicans would allow tax increases for entitlement cuts. The key ingredient there, it turns out is tax increases, because as Politico reports, actually, Republicans don't really want entitlement cuts.

The prevailing view among House Republicans is that they have finally won the cuts they spent years fighting for and see little reason to tick off senior voters by cutting entitlements while also ticking off the base with new taxes. In truth, many Republicans aren’t very motivated themselves to start messing with entitlements if they don’t have to.

If they don't have to? Republicans have long said entitlement reform is mission critical. Here's Sen. Lindsey Graham criticizing a Democratic fiscal cliff proposal in early December: "This offer doesn’t remotely deal with entitlement reform in a way to save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from imminent bankruptcy." Here's Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole in February, criticizing Obama's State of the Union speech for not being "honest with the American people about the unsustainable trajectory of our entitlement programs and their impact on the $16 trillion debt." The post is titled, "Time for Entitlement Reform." Here's Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Republican Conference chairwoman, on MSNBC recently: "I would like to see us take action on Medicare. We need to be honest that the current path is on a path to bankruptcy."

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There were some clues that the GOP isn't all that committed to entitlement reform in Paul Ryan's budget, which he presented Tuesday. Ryan, who said in 2011 that Social Security is going bankrupt and had to be fixed, did not touch the program in his budget. His Medicare reform wouldn't go into effect until 2024.

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There is one thing we can be sure the GOP wants: sincere affection. On MSNBC Wednesday, Paul Ryan wondered if Obama really believed in reaching out to Republicans through various meals the last couple weeks. "Was the so-called charm offensive a temporary poll-driven political calculation?" Ryan asked. "Or was it a sincere conversion to try and bring people together and start communicating?" Rep. Tom Cole tells Roll Call's David M. Drucker, "There’s some concern as to whether it will be more than political window dressing." Iowa Rep. Tom Latham said, "I hope it’s genuine... Who knows?" House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy told Politico that Obama was a little snippy to him at the Gridiron dinner this week.

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