Paul Ryan may have a Mitch McConnell problem.
In past weeks, the Kentucky Republican has been pleading the case, including in a rare appearance at the House GOP conference meeting, for preserving the sequester cuts at all costs. At times facing criticism from his right, McConnell has held up the sequester as the GOP’s most important trophy after three years of control of the House.
Now Ryan, the House budget chairman, is dealing away those near-term cuts for a combination of long-term spending cuts and new revenues.
McConnell has not been part of the negotiations. He told reporters earlier today that he will wait to pass judgment until he sees the final details, which are being tightly held.
But the premise of the deal clearly cuts against McConnell’s vigorous push to preserve the sequester and comes as he is facing political heat from his primary opponent, Matt Bevin, and former senator Jim DeMint’s political network, which includes the Heritage Foundation and the Senate Conservatives Fund, run by DeMint protégé Matt Hoskins.
Internally on the House side, the case for the deal is a plea for realism about the limits of GOP power.
Ryan and Republican leadership fear the circumstances will get much worse in January as the days tick down to a government shutdown. Unemployment benefits will have expired, giving President Obama a class-warfare cudgel to hit the GOP with. Democrats, looking for a way to distract from Obamacare’s woes, will have a political incentive to angle for a shutdown, which, after October’s episode, is out of the question for GOP leaders.
The best-case scenario for a sequester deal for the GOP has always been to trade long-term entitlement reforms in return for easing the short-term discretionary spending levels. Top proponents like McConnell and Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist have argued that as long as the GOP sticks together on the cuts, the Democrats will eventually come hat in hand, willing to strike such a deal because the sequester is wreaking havoc on their domestic priorities.
Clearly, Ryan has let go of that dream, at least for now. And there are good arguments it is impossible. I asked one Democratic aide, a progressive, to describe how opposed House liberals were to such a deal. “Violently,” he replied.
Still, rank-and-file conservatives have been clinging to the hope of making some small headway in averting the looming disaster of the entitlement cliff. Given the high esteem in which Ryan is held in the conference, they’re waiting for the details to emerge and applying a “trust but verify” rubric to the deal. The situation is fluid, and if the cuts are flimsy or make-believe, like they have been in the past, it could tank the whole deal.