Rationale For Obama’s Budget

So things will get interesting in Washington at 11:00 EDT today, which is when the president’s budget is due to be formally released, and also when Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey are holding a press conference to unveil their “compromise” gun legislation.

The latter event is occurring against the rapidly changing backdrop of a cloture vote tomorrow and apparent Republican defections from the Rand-Paul-led filibuster on guns. But the former event is rousing ancient disagreements over fiscal priorities, the significance of budget deficits, and the moral status of Social Security and Medicare.

Like most folk left of center, I’ve had trouble completely understanding the White House’s motives in including the Chained CPI in this budget, particularly absent any sign of interest in negotiating from Republicans. Here’s Ezra Klein’s effort to explain Obama’s strategy from this morning’s Wonkblog:

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the sequester has been a bust. Republicans, in particular, have convinced themselves it was all a ruse. But the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which is implementing sequestration, sees it differently. The small number of cuts that have already happened, including White House tours, have provoked an outsized level of political outrage. But the cuts mostly haven’t begun.

They begin rolling out in earnest this month. Unemployment checks for people who’ve been without a job for more than 26 weeks are about to get cut by 11 percent. Military contracts are about to get canceled. Medicare patients are being turned away from cancer clinics. Schools will lay off teachers. Infrastructure projects will stop. There will be much more demand for a compromise than there is now. There will be much more political anger than there is now.

This budget sets up that debate. Republicans are, at this point, out of excuses. They can’t say the president isn’t reaching out to them. They can’t say he’s not willing to make painful concessions — or, to rephrase, they can say that, but given all the on-the-record quotes of Republican leaders demanding the White House accept means-testing Medicare and chained-CPI, no one will take them seriously. The White House is calling their bluff. The question is whether, as the pressure mounts, they double down against compromise, or they begin to fold.

So in this view, it’s all about the sequester, and the anticipation that the public reaction once it begins truly to bite will force some sort of action in Congress.

Maybe the White House is right, but then I keep thinking about Republicans like Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas (the guy I wrote about yesterday as a potential challenger to David Pryor), who’ve made it clear a little healthy pain in the pursuit of Limited Government is natural and fine. Part of the calculation here has to be about who holds the ultimate whip hand in the GOP. And it seems the White House strategists are a lot more sanguine than I am that reasonable people will emerge from the guerilla camps on the other side and ask for a deal.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.