After two tumultuous years of budget brinkmanship, President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress finally agree on something — namely, that a previous 10-year pact to cut $1 trillion across the board was such a bad idea it must be stopped before it starts.
If consensus counts as good news in an era of divided government, consider this: They also disagree vehemently on a suitable replacement.
As a result, they seem likely to spend the spring and perhaps a good part of the summer struggling to escape a bind of their own making. This time, Medicare and the rest of the government’s benefit programs are likely to face changes.
Already, the two sides are laying down markers.
Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to join him in developing a replacement for the across-the-board reductions, “a balanced mix of spending cuts and more tax reform.”
“We can’t just cut our way to prosperity,” he told reporters at the White House.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had a different view. “If Democrats have ideas for smarter cuts, they should bring them up for debate,” he said, noting that the GOP-controlled House already has produced an alternative.
Majority Republicans in the House welcome the debate after calculating that their leverage with Obama would increase once he asked lawmakers for repeal of the across-the-board cuts.
“We’ve passed a bill twice to replace” them, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday. “It’s time for the president and Senate Democrats to do their job” without higher taxes, he added.
In fact, the across-the-board reductions themselves were born almost of desperation, designed to be so unpalatable that they would force members of a 2011 congressional “supercommittee” to agree on a sweeping anti-deficit plan rather than let them take effect.
The panel deadlocked. The cuts have been delayed by two months but are set to kick in on March 1, with $483 billion cut from defense over a decade and roughly the same out of a variety of domestic programs. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits are untouched.
Few if any political leaders care to defend the automatic cuts, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday they would slow economic growth if they take effect.
But both groups stayed away from the core reason that Obama and Republicans are at odds. In deficit deal-making to date that totals $3.6 trillion over a decade, the government’s costly benefit programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security among them — have been largely untouched.
Both Obama and congressional Republicans have backed suggested savings from Medicare and even Social Security in earlier rounds of talks but, for a variety of reasons, omitted them from the final deals.
Now they’re back, at the center of the debate.