When House Republicans repaired to Williamsburg, Va., in January, they hatched a pretty smart plan to carry them through the winter. The talk coming out of the retreat was all about “sequencing”: after the bruising fiscal cliff battle, the GOP needed to avoid, if only temporarily, a confrontation over the debt ceiling and skip straight to the comparatively lower stakes of the sequester. “Sometimes you’ve got to lay down a sacrifice bunt,” Rep. Dennis Ross of Florida told National Journal.
This assumption, for the time being, at least, has proved correct. The sequester kicked in, and its adverse effects around the country have been too scattershot to compel movement in Washington. The unveiling of the Ryan budget followed, with its claim to the moral high ground of a balanced budget in 10 years. Most recently, both chambers approved a continuing budget resolution to fund the government through September at the sequester’s lower spending levels—another win for the GOP.
In sum, since January, congressional Republicans have navigated the fiscal shoals about as well as could be expected. They punted (or bunted?) on what would have been a disastrous fight over the debt ceiling. And they avoided a government shutdown—a political disaster if not, as with the debt ceiling, a global-economic one.
But now spring has arrived, and the party again needs to feed the Sequencing Meter. Because it seems we’re right back to where we were in January. As Politico’s Jake Sherman reports:
They might have appeared to stand down from the last clash over the debt ceiling in January. But don’t be fooled: House Republicans are still planning to push for steep spending cuts or budgetary reforms alongside legislation to allow more borrowing. House Speaker John Boehner’s majority has cut so deep into discretionary spending, they know they cannot go any deeper. So this time, to raise the nation’s debt cap — something GOP leadership estimates is likely to happen in July — they are moving on to tweaking entitlements.
Avoiding the debt ceiling and moving onto the sequester undeniably made short-term tactical sense. But the perilous politics of the debt ceiling haven’t changed simply because all the low-hanging fruit of discretionary spending has been plucked. Just as readily as Republicans insist the argument about revenue concluded with the fiscal cliff, President Obama will no doubt re-up his posture of refusing to negotiate over the debt ceiling and demand new revenue in exchange for entitlement reform.
The sequencing of “Sequester first” will have made long-term sense only when Republicans manage to extract reforms they actually want—not just across-the-board cuts they’re willing to live with. If the Williamsburg Accord, as the strategy formulated at January’s retreat for House Republicans has come to be called, does not ultimately yield a grand bargain, it will be seen as just a temporary mollification of the fiscal hardliners.
Bottom line: if House Republican leaders can’t wrangle those hardliners, now seemingly emboldened, to the finish line of a grand bargain, they will have been victimized by the provisional success of the sequester standoff.