Sequester Saturday

The week closed with a positioning bang, as both the White House and congressional Republicans tried to frame the endgame leading up to the automatic spending cuts on the terms most favorable to them.

The Administration’s biggest gamble is the decision to start to play the sky-is-falling card, talking about all the negative effects the cuts are going to have on the real lives of real people. If somehow that gambit forces a last-minute deal from Republicans, the Obamans will have hit on a brilliant move. However, if the cuts kick in, and the country and the economy get moody, the chief executive is going to have a hard time rhetorically shutting down the gloom-and-doom storyline, and avoiding the blame and the spillover effects.

Republicans are all excited about Bob Woodward’s latest attempt to set the record straight on the President’s responsibility for giving America the sequester it has before it. The White House courted this trouble by trying to rewrite history a bit too much in seeming to disavow parenthood of this unthinkable beast.  Watch to see if the administration completely caves on this battle or keeps trying to work the fringes.

If you want to know what else is emboldening Republicans in this fight, read Peggy Noonan in full. Hint: she thinks finally, this time, for real, once and for all, the President’s luck (and style of governance) is going to run out.  And/but: She also observes the GOP still lacks a leader and a sense of mojo to wage the war.

Finally, read every word of this Dick Stevenson New York Times piece, but pay special attention to the truth bombs embedded herein:

The starting point, administration officials say, is to allow the normal budget process to play out in Congress in coming months, while encouraging both parties to explore ideas for overhauling the tax code. At some point the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House could begin to consider areas for compromise, providing a natural forum for a negotiation in which Mr. Obama would not necessarily need to be the central player.

To the degree that an improving economy and signs of a reduced rate of growth in health care costs push projected budget deficits lower, the climate for a deal could also brighten…..

Inside the White House, there is deep skepticism about whether Republicans actually want to address Medicare in an immediate and concrete way – or whether Republicans would prefer to pillory Democrats for backing Medicare cuts, as they did successfully in the 2010 midterm elections and could again in 2014, and avoid voting for anything themselves that could bring a backlash from voters….

At the White House, they say they do not get enough credit from Republicans for bucking the Democratic Party’s liberal base by supporting the cuts to Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustments. They also point to their willingness to embrace substantial Medicare cuts that would put some Democratic members of Congress at risk in their next elections.

I’ve given up hope on grand bargain for now, but the logic of it, as compared to other options, remains pretty strong. At the time the White House pushed for a deal de-coupling the expiration of the Bush tax cuts from the sequester and the debt ceiling increase, it looked super smart.  Without a grand bargain (or a deal to seek one down the road while putting off looming cliffy things…), that New Year’s decision might turn out to seem like a miscalculation.

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