When it comes to the most significant driver of the national debt — entitlement spending — President Obama’s budget, released on Monday, was an unequivocal “punt.” But now that Republicans have the ball, and appear willing to run with it, Democrats are trying to call “time out” by publicly inviting Republicans to negotiate in private.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had urged Obama to take the lead on entitlement reform, at the very least by supporting the final recommendations of his own deficit commission. Otherwise, as NBC’s Chuck Todd pointed out during a White House press conference, “What was the point” of the commission?
Obama responded by accusing the political media of being “impatient,” and said he was confident the issue could be resolved in a bipartisan fashion, just as both parties were able to forge a deal on taxes during last year’s lame-duck session. “This is not a matter of ‘you go first’ or ‘I go first,’” he said. “If you look at the history of how these deals get done, typically it’s not because there is an Obama plan out there, it’s because Democrats and Republicans are committed to tackling this issue in serious way.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) echoed this sentiment in his opening remarks at a House Budget Committee hearing: “It is important that the White House and the Congress, Republicans and Democrats, come together to seriously discuss and consider the ideas in the Commission’s proposal. Compromise is not a dirty word. Getting things done requires give and take. We should begin that conversation now.”
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and an influential conservative, has a message for the GOP: Don’t go into the back room. In an interview with National Review Online, Norquist says he’s not surprised to see Democrats calling for private negotiations, but urges Republicans to debate these issues where the public can see them.
He brings up another instance of behind-the-scene maneuvering that took place during the lame-duck session, what he describes as the “massive effort” by Democrats and the White House to pass an omnibus spending bill that would “spend all of next year’s money, take next year’s budget off the table, and give the freshman class no say on spending.”
“This was Obama and the Democrats sneering at the American people for the punishment they gave them in November,” he says. “The equivalent of undoing an election.”
Fortunately, thanks to the “heroic defense” of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), wavering Republicans were brought to their senses (Norquist half-jokingly wonders if compromising photographs were involved). Still, he says it’s a shame that voters don’t know the true extent of the Democratic chicanery. “What they wouldn’t have given to get that thing through,” he says of the omnibus. Instead, Congress passed another short-term continuing resolution that expires on March 4. House Republicans, including a freshman class of 87 members, are putting the finishing touches on a new CR that will cut more than $100 billion in spending compared with President Obama’s budget request for 2011.
On the issue of tax reform, entitlement reform, or both, Norquist says Republicans should resist the urge to cut deals with Democrats in dark rooms. Anyone who thought President Obama would pursue a more centrist tack after the lame-duck tax deal ought to abandon that wishful thinking with the release of his 2012 budget, when “the mask came off again.” Instead, the GOP should keep its sights set on the 2012 elections by releasing a “Republican plan” in order to present a clear contrast with Democrats. “This is a two-year fight, and it’s important for the Tea Party and independents to see what Republicans are doing,” Norquist says. “At the end of two years, in November, you want the American people to say: ‘We want you guys in charge.’”
The strategy makes sense, he contends, not least because, with Democrats still in control of the Senate and the White House, the GOP will be severely limited in terms of what they can realistically hope to achieve. If Democrats want to make a deal, “get it to me in writing, get me co-sponsors, then we can talk,” he says; otherwise “don’t try to negotiate with imaginary people.” In other words, beware of those who beckon into back rooms, offering vague promises of compromise.
Either way, Norquist doesn’t see much wisdom in trying to bargain with the Left. “Hoping that Democrats suddenly collapse and become reasonable and decide after 100 years to learn what sound economic policy is, is not the way to bet,” he says. “As far as tax reform goes, with Obama holding one of the three levers of power, it’s almost impossible to see how that could end well.”
So until the balance of power in Washington is altered to the GOP’s advantage, Republicans should hold fast by their principles. “Lay out a vision but do not compromise away from that,” he advises, adding: “Nothing good happens before 2012.”