The sequester will go into extra innings on Friday — here’s why

Unless I’m seriously mistaken and misreading the lack of disturbance in the Force — the DC jungle tom-toms are remarkably silent — sequester negotiations are headed for extra innings, and the sequester, due to arrive on March 1, will arrive on schedule. Yves Smith thinks the two sides are waiting each other out (my emphasis everywhere):

The game of chicken both the Republicans and Democrats are playing with the sequester and the budget/deficit talks is striking. One of the truly bizarre elements is that neither side is signaling the faintest interest in dealmaking of any kind. As I indicated the week before last, the lack of any sense of urgency was obvious: Congress had a holiday last week, and there were no real negotiations or even an exchange of proposals, virtually guaranteeing the sequester would take place as scheduled.

And you could feel the indifference even before then: no rush to get to work right after either the inaugural partying or the State of the Union. By contrast, recall last November how we went with nary a beat from the election results to deficit scaremongering and frenzied “what a deal should look like” chatter?

A piece in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday gave a good overview of the state of play. The game plan is now that the sequester will be allowed to kick in and will stay in place until one side cries “Uncle,” when the impact on the economy is hurting one side badly enough in the polls to force it to relent.

Yves thinks there is “more here than meets the eye” and I think she’s right (see below). Click to read more of her thinking.

So what’s going on?

Digby offers a clue. Quoting Brian Beutler at TPM:

So sequestration will begin. Obama won’t cave [because he’ll never face another election, according to Beutler]. And then the tension sequestration was intended to create — and in fact has created — between defense hawks and the rest of the GOP will intensify and actually splinter the party. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, then the sequestration fight will become tangled up in the need to renew funding for the federal government at the end of March. If Republicans don’t cave before then, they’ll precipitate a 1995-style government shutdown, public opinion will actually begin to control the outcome, and it’ll be game over.

So there are real dynamics at work here that can break the GOP’s resolve in this fight but that can’t easily be turned against Obama.

Digby adds:

… I certainly agree that the whole point is to divide the Republicans between the defense hawks and the debt fetishists. You can see the tension in the Senate already with Graham and McCain calling for revenue to avoid defense cuts. That’s where the action’s going to be. But I would also point out that the Democratic party has a share of defense hawks who can be counted upon to exert pressure for some kind of a deal as well.

This could very well be correct. However …

Is this a left vs. right fight, or a “center” vs. the edges fight?

All of the above positions the battle as Obama and the Dems vs. Boehner and the Republicans. Will the military cuts make the Republicans crack first? Will the social program cuts make the Democrats give in? But there’s another way to see this.

Let’s start from the principle that leaders of both parties, Obama included, want to cut benefits for Social Security and Medicare. If the “centrist” deal is “Let’s each kill one of our own,” meaning Republicans leaders will agree to raise taxes and Democratic leaders will start cutting benefits, then the problem, as always, is at the recalcitrant edges.

The recalcitrant edge of the Republicans includes Tea Party–financed electeds. The recaltricant Dems are the progressives, especially those in the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and their cousins in the Senate.

Can the Republicans get the Tea Party–financed to go along with raising taxes? Can the Neoliberal Democrats — that’s you, Barack Obama — get the progressives in Congress to vote for benefit cuts?

That’s been the battle every time, and I’m convinced it’s the battle now. Obama can’t cut benefits without “bipartisan” fingers on the knife. Unless it’s a “bipartisan deal,” Dems will be the perp, and House and Senate Dems — those who do face future elections — won’t allow that. So Obama has to bribe his own party with the illusion of a “bipartisan” decision, just to get them to consider it.

Why “illusion”? Because as soon as a “bipartisan” benefit cuts deal is signed into law, the Republicans will hang it around the neck of every Democrat who voted for it anyway. It’s the way they work. Democrats who don’t see this are star-gazing, dream-catching, looking for fish in a waterless world.

We know that cutting benefits is the Republicans’ goal in sequester negotiations. Is it Obama’s? Bill Black, from the Yves Smith article quoted above, tells us that the only reason we have the sequester at all is because Obama wanted it. Note this:

We are in the midst of the blame game about the “Sequester.” I wrote last year about the fact that President Obama had twice blocked Republican efforts to remove the Sequester. President Obama went so far as to issue a veto threat to block the second effort. I found contemporaneous reportage on the President’s efforts to preserve the Sequester – and the articles were not critical of those efforts. I found no contemporaneous rebuttal by the administration of these reports.

And again, benefit cuts are “very much” on the table.

So Obama wants the sequester to force another Grand Bargain — or Grand Betrayal, as Black says later in the piece. Boehner wants the sequester to force Obama to offer benefit cuts without revenue increases, which Obama can’t offer. Stalemate, and a sequester we will have, until both sides’ leaders get agreement within their parties, or until they give up, cancel the sequester, and move on to the next phony crisis opportunity (the debt ceiling).

The real blackmailee, of course, is the country. Both sides’ leaders want the sequester to be scary to everyone in the country — OMG, the troops; OMG, air travel; OMG, Head Start gets it in the neck — so that pressure builds on their edge politicians to cave.

In other words, they’re not really blackmailing each other, these Obamas and Boehners. They’re acting together to blackmail the country to want a deal so badly, that both the Tea Party R’s and the progressive D’s will each cave to their leaders and agree to what the leaders of both parties want — ultimately, benefit cuts, with a thin layer of tax hikes and a bunch of confusing budget numbers for frosting.

Anyone in the press who says, “OMG, sequester!” is part of the blackmail, knowingly or not. Anyone.

What’s the way out?

What’s the answer to every blackmail situation, especially one in which there’s no kidnapped victim? Don’t pay. So here’s how to play it:

1. Phone every Republican made vulnerable by the sequester — see the end of this post by Howie Klein for the list — and say:

“Are you a man (woman) or a mouse? Where’s that Tea Party no-tax goodness you promised when you ran? And by the way, you’re dead to me if you vote for cuts to my Medicare or retirement money. See you in 2014.”

House phone numbers here. Howie has compiled a long list. Feel free to improvise your own riff on the theme. Just make it credible — you’re an angry man with a mullet, or a woman who hearts Sarah Palin, or vice versa.

2. Now phone every Democrat who said they “strongly oppose” benefit cuts — but didn’t say they would vote against them (there’s a good starter list here, with phone numbers). Tell them:

“Dude (dudette): This vote is a land mine. Don’t step on it. ‘Nuff said? 2014 is just around the corner, and this stuff is toxic. Just helping out, making sure you know that.”

None of these people wants to lose their job, and many won’t take much convincing. Among the Republicans, you’re playing into fear — they get it; their people are old and want “gummint hands of our Medicare.” That fear is part of why we don’t have a deal on the table right now.

And among the Democrats, there are many who really do oppose benefit cuts. We just have to let them know we’re watching — and be sure to tell them there’s a Thank You waiting if they do the right thing.

No Cuts period, that’s the right thing — no matter what else the bill contains. I say this because Obama, he’s a tricky man; he’ll put kittens and veterans benefits inside the bill and dare the CPC to vote against it. Just say No, CPC. With your vote.

And fans, don’t forget to phone the Republicans as well. Many of them are as scared as you are, and a whole lot more venal.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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