It's almost like the Tea Party won

The election was a rebuke of austerity -- but the hard right is getting its way on the sequester

Published March 6, 2013 1:04PM (EST)

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.     (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Obama administration is doing its best to make Americans aware of – and enraged by – the impact of the sequester, hoping to pressure Republicans into a deal that will undo the cuts and replace them with the “balanced” deficit reduction framework that the president has been seeking for two years now. But several days into the sequester, it’s starting to feel like the critical mass of outrage that the White House is hoping for may not be reached.

This doesn’t mean the sequester won’t have a real impact. The domestic spending cuts will force agencies that provide aid to the poor to turn away families that need it, and the combined effects of slashing $85 billion from Defense and domestic programs over the next seven months will slow an economy that’s still struggling to return to health.

But how will this look to the average voter? The poor, who will feel the brunt of the cuts most acutely, don’t have all that much visibility in or influence on the national political debate. And if GDP growth is now weaker than it would otherwise be, the impact will be felt indirectly by people; that is, if the store at the end of the street is still closed down six months from now, will the average voter blame the sequester, or just chalk it up to the generally rotten economy we’ve all been living with since 2008?

In the run-up to sequestration, there was some talk that the cuts would be short-lived, with another manufactured deadline – the expiration of the continuing resolution that funds the government – looming on March 27. Obama, this thinking went, would have the upper hand in negotiating a new CR, with Republicans feeling the public’s wrath over the sequester and suddenly receptive to undoing it. But so far, public opinion has actually trended in the GOP’s favor. Before sequestration went into effect last Friday, polling indicated that voters would be much more likely to blame Republicans than Obama. But a new CBS survey this week finds the public assigning blame almost evenly.

Public opinion could change, obviously, and there remain plenty of Republican lawmakers who are vehemently opposed to cutting the Defense budget. But within the GOP, the great revelation of the sequester has been how powerless the Pentagon defenders have been – and how popular the Tea Party vision of a radically scaled back government, Department of Defense included, has become. Add in the GOP’s absolute resistance to any further revenue increases in the wake of January’s fiscal cliff deal and you can see why House Speaker John Boehner ended up concluding that the sequester was the most palatable option on the table. It’s not like any deal he could have struck with the White House would have had a chance of passing muster with his fellow Republicans.

Given all of this, it’s hard to see how Obama and Democrats will get their wish of a canceled sequester any time soon. Already, they’ve essentially decided not to pick a fight over the CR, with Obama signaling early that he won’t veto anything that reaches his desk and with House Democratic leaders indicating Tuesday that they won’t try to derail the House GOP’s plan. That GOP plan would reorder cuts in a way that protects some Defense programs but leaves the overall cuts of the sequester in place.

The next deadline after the CR should come next month, when we’ll again be up against the debt ceiling. Ominously, a Republican aide on Capitol Hill told Greg Sargent on Tuesday to “stay tuned” when asked about the possibility of the GOP using the debt ceiling to extract even deeper spending cuts. Republicans didn’t seem to have that much appetite for another debt ceiling staredown earlier this year, but Boehner has violated the Hastert Rule and passed major legislation with primarily Democratic support three times this year. And with the sequester in effect, Tea Party types in the House may feel emboldened to demand more. A more optimistic reading of the situation is that Boehner will be able to use the GOP’s “wins” on the sequester and CR to convince conservatives that another fight isn’t needed in April. But that would simply avoid debt ceiling brinkmanship; it wouldn’t end the sequester.

Beyond that, the only other obvious deadline on the calendar will come in seven months, when a new CR would expire. There might be an opening in the run-up to that for Obama to get his grand bargain-for-sequester trade-off, although it would require Republicans to embrace a framework – half revenue increases, half entitlement cuts – that they’ve largely resisted for some time. It may be that to most of the party, the sequester will remain preferable to Obama’s “balanced” approach.

It’s all a long way of saying we’re probably stuck with the sequester for the rest of this fiscal year – and maybe well beyond that. It’s an outcome almost no one saw coming a year ago, and one made all the more remarkable by the fact that the most recent election seemed to represent a rebuke of the GOP and its embrace of Tea Party fiscal values.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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