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All of which helps explain why Speaker John Boehner and congressional Republicans have been so intent on facing down President Obama in their budget dispute, taking on the economic and political risks associated with the automatic spending cuts that went into effect Friday to make the point that they would not be maneuvered by the White House into accepting more tax increases.
“I’m going to say it one more time,” Boehner said Sunday on “Meet the Press” on NBC. Obama already has taxes nearly $1 trillion to finance his health-care program and in January won $650 billion in steeper taxes on high incomes, he said.
“How much more does he want?” Boehner asked. “When is the president going to address the spending side of this?”
But the speaker offered some hope that the budget process — which begins this week with likely House passage of a spending measure, or “continuing resolution,” to keep the government open for the rest of the year — could still end in a comprehensive agreement that lowers the deficit, overhauls the tax code and restores at least some of the automatic spending cuts.
“I don’t think anyone quite understands how it gets resolved,” Boehner conceded. “After we do our continuing resolution, we’ll begin to work on our budget.”
Four months after Obama won a second term, the only issue that truly unites Republicans is a commitment to shrinking the federal government through spending cuts, low taxes and less regulation. To have compromised again and agreed to additional tax increases or rolling back spending cuts would have left Republicans deeply split and, many of them say, at risk of losing the core of the party’s identity.
“If the voters can’t rely on us to stand up to the runaway train of entitlements and deficits and federal debt, what can they count on us for?” said David Kochel, a GOP consultant in Iowa.
One of the most striking characteristics about the political climate in the months since Obama’s re-election is that on issue after issue, it is no longer entirely clear what it means to be a Republican, with the party more divided than ever on domestic policy and a debate breaking out over how best to invigorate the conservative movement.
In that sense, the budget showdown is not just about cutting $85 billion out of government spending over the next seven months.
It is, to many conservatives, about showing that Republicans still have the will, the leadership and the public support to use this moment to halt, or at least slow, an ideological pendulum swing from the right, where the nation seemed to be heading after the 2010 midterm elections, to the left, after the 2012 campaign.
“The sequester and winning that fight — however you define what winning means — is critical for the party,” said Ralph Reed, the longtime social-conservative leader.
There are risks for Republicans in taking a hard line on the spending cuts, especially if the unemployment rate jumps and the economy slows. Democrats are highlighting estimates by the Congressional Budget Office that the fiscal cutbacks could leave the economy with 750,000 fewer jobs this year than it would have otherwise. And they are warning that while the effects of the budget cuts will play out slowly, the cuts will eventually hit in noticeable ways.
“I don’t see how ‘I’m fine with the sequester’ differs from ‘I’m fine with slower growth and continued high unemployment’ or longer delays at airports, fewer Head Start slots, furloughs among civilian DOD folks and so on,” said Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group.
As the cuts become real, he said, they will “deeply discredit” those who foster the idea that government spending is inherently wasteful and that there is no tangible cost to reducing it.
But to the degree that Boehner has prevailed in the first round of the fight — the skirmishes over the across-the-board cuts and the longer-term questions about addressing the national debt will go on for months and years — it could not have come at a better time for the morale of Republicans.
In the view of some conservative commentators, the Republican Party and the conservative movement are at one of their lowest points in years — “leaderless and nearly issueless,” as Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, wrote last week in an opinion piece for Politico.
The internal divisions after the party’s fourth loss in the last six presidential elections and the recognition that inexorable demographic shifts are working against a reliance on its traditional base have set off the most fundamental debate since the Reagan years about the future of conservatism.
Liberals dismiss the exercise as a sham intended to distract attention from enduring ties between wealthy interests and conservative policy and politicians. That is a point implicitly recognized by many Republicans, who have put at the heart of the debate about their future the question of how to defend the party’s small-government philosophy without being portrayed as imprudently abstemious and against middle-class interests.
They are beginning to talk about focusing less on reductions in marginal income-tax rates — long the primary goal of Reagan-era supply-siders — and more on tax changes, like increasing the child credit or reducing payroll taxes that would more directly address the stagnation in middle-class incomes and growing inequality.
“There’s a danger if the Republican Party is only seen as the party that cuts government spending, because that is a necessary but insufficient rationale for a majority party,”Reed said.