Give more or expect less

As of yesterday’s negotiations at the White House, President Obama seemed to be creating a series of incentives for Republicans.

Working off of talks that had been spearheaded by Vice President Joseph Biden, the president said he would be comfortable signing off on northward of $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending and mandatory spending cuts. With additional negotiations, he added, he could move that figure up to $1.7 trillion, and with a willingness to consider revenue increases and tax loophole closures, lawmakers could get to over $2 trillion.

This is a standard, sensible move, and it shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. If the goal is to strike a broader deal of over $2 trillion in savings, Obama is saying, in effect, “I’ll make the first offer and accept $1.5 trillion in cuts. Work with me a bit, and I’ll go to $1.7 trillion. Make some modest concessions on revenue, and we’ll get over $2 trillion.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the de facto Republican leader in Congress right now, rejected this out of hand. The oft-confused Virginian wants both the higher target and the exclusion of any new revenue.

In other words, as usual, congressional Republicans just don’t want to compromise.

But what I found interesting about this is that the White House’s bottom line is similar to what I recommended on Tuesday — push the GOP to negotiate in one direction or the other. Ezra Klein had a good summary of the pitch:

Last night, Obama was clear with Cantor: either Republicans have to give on revenues or they have to give on their demand to match each dollar in debt-ceiling increases with a dollar in spending cuts. But there’s no $2.5 trillion package — which is the size of the debt-ceiling increase needed to get us through the next election — that’s all spending cuts.

John Boehner, back when he mattered in this process, arbitrarily set the parameters: for every dollar increase in the debt ceiling, Republicans would demand a dollar in debt reduction. To raise the limit by more than $2 trillion, negotiators would have to come up with more than $2 trillion in savings.

What President Obama is saying is that there’s more than one way for the GOP to negotiate, and Republicans can change the arbitrary target at will. They can make some concessions on revenue and strike a deal that’s the size Republicans want, or they can make some concessions on the size of the deal itself.

If there’s going to be a deal, Republicans are going to have to give more or expect less. If they don’t want to negotiate in one direction, they should be willing to negotiate in the other.