Republicans would support a continuing resolution funding the government for six months at the sequester levels of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was produced by that year’s debt-ceiling negotiations. Republicans would also support raising the debt ceiling to enable the government to borrow enough to finance the substantial deficit spending involved in even sequester-level spending. (The sequester’s supposed severity does not come close to balancing the budget.) Republicans also would grant agencies greater flexibility in administering the sequester’s cuts.
In exchange, Collins asked for only two things. First, a mere delay, and for just two years, of Obamacare’s medical-device tax, which is so “stupid” — Sen. Harry Reid’s characterization — that bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress favor outright repeal. Second, enforcement of income-verification criteria for those seeking Obamacare’s insurance subsidies — criteria the administration wrote but waived.
Here Collins was asking not for alteration of, but for enforcement of, Obamacare. Just as many Republicans believe the Democrats’ primary goal regarding immigration reform is to turn as many immigrants as possible into voters as quickly as possible, many Republicans also believe the Democrats’ primary goal regarding Obamacare is to turn as many people as possible into subsidy recipients as quickly as possible. Hence Democrats’ aversion to income criteria to prevent fraud.
As of early Monday evening, Democrats had refused Collins’ bargain, giving several reasons but really having only one important one: They loathe the sequester, which prevents them from opening the spending spigot. Their knees ache from genuflecting before the altar of a “clean” continuing resolution and a “clean” debt-ceiling increase. They insist it is a sin against good government to attach any conditions to either.
Suddenly, however, they decided that conditions are imperative. They favored attaching to a government funding or debt-ceiling measure a change in the Budget Control Act intended to weaken the sequester.
Barack Obama, who says you did not see and hear him draw a red line regarding Syrian chemical weapons (“the world” drew it), insists: “The sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed.” This neon fib, made during last year’s campaign, matters because the sequester has become the main bone of contention in the shutdown and debt-ceiling dramas.
According to Bob Woodward’s meticulously reported book “The Price of Politics,” in the summer of 2011, with Republicans refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless spending would be cut an equal amount, Obama and his principal economic advisers blundered by not recognizing how the Republican Party has changed. Obama proposed that if Republicans would not agree to tax increases as well as spending cuts, the sequester would take half the cuts from defense. Republicans, Obama and his aides thought, would flinch from this.
Now Obama knows how wrong he was. Liberals, having long reviled Republicans as obsequious servants of big business and the military, are living miserably with the sequester cuts because Republicans now are resistant to business and military entreaties to open the government and raise the debt ceiling without preconditions.
Early in the Cold War and in the Air Force’s existence as an independent service, during fierce inter-service competition for scarce resources, Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, was briefed by a junior officer who repeatedly referred to the Soviet Union as “the enemy.” LeMay supposedly interrupted to say, “Young man, the Soviet Union is our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy.”
Those House Republicans who dislike the Obama administration but detest Senate Republicans should understand how the moderate Collins forced Democrats to drop their mask of moderation. And all House Republicans should understand that the victory won in the summer of 2011 — the sequester, achieved by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — still torments Democrats.
As Speaker John Boehner struggles to manage his turbulent House caucus, he should remember Casey Stengel’s advice about managing a baseball team: “Keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.”
No Republicans hate Boehner, but many are undecided about him because they do not appreciate the hammer — the sequester — he wields.
George Will is a columnist for the Washington Post.