Since the first days of the Obama administration, the reigning dynamic in Washington has been an intense, at times apocalyptic, struggle over the size of government. It shaped the battle over the original stimulus, over health-care reform, and over each of the endless series of budget crises—the continuing resolution to fund the government, the debt ceiling increase, the fiscal cliff—that have threatened to blow up Washington (or worse). It shaped the presidential race, too.
The reason why this dynamic has held for so long is that it ordinarily unites the disparate factions of the Republican coalition. But beneath the surface, there’s a lot that coalition doesn’t agree on, and the next big budget battle due to arrive at month’s end—automatic spending cuts known as “sequestration—threatens to expose the rift between one wing of the party (antitax Republicans) and another (defense Republicans).
Sequestration is the result of the two parties’ failure to agree on long-term steps to reduce the deficit, and it was never supposed to kick in. Instead, it was intended to function as a threat so dire to both parties’ interests that it would force them to come to an agreement rather than accept huge across-the-board cuts to cherished interests: $500 billion from military spending and another $500 billion from social programs.
But that struggle over the size of government has prevented Congress from reaching an agreement to avoid the cuts, and now most people in Washington expect they’ll kick in on March 1. Although Republicans hate the defense cuts and insisted before the election that they were “draconian” and unacceptable, they’ve lately made a big show of their willingness to accept them after all (a stronger position from which to negotiate with Obama). Antitax conservatives are fine with the cuts, since they’d continue to shrink the government. But defense-minded Republicans are increasingly terrified at the ax about to fall on the Pentagon’s budget.
Although it’s been overshadowed by other fights, this showdown between antitax and pro-defense Republicans has been brewing for a long time. In 2011, my Bloomberg colleague Kristin Jensen and I noted the discomfort that many defense Republicans felt about the sequester, as well as their willingness to abandon their antitax brethren if necessary.
“I have never voted for a tax increase,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said back then. But were that the only way to avoid cutting the Pentagon’s budget, he added, “I would go to strengthen defense.”
McKeon has been notably silent in recent weeks. But other defense Republicans have begun speaking out. “I think any alternative is better than allowing the sequester to take effect,” Representative Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) told the Huffington Post on Tuesday. “If you could say would you rather hollow out the Pentagon or increase taxes, I would support the latter to make sure that we didn’t lose our capability to maintain our superpower status.”
The clash between the two wings of the Republican Party will only intensify as the March deadline approaches. Obama may put off that reckoning if he succeeds in delaying the sequester for a few months. But the past two years have demonstrated that the Republican crusade to shrink government will eventually force it to reconcile this tension within the party.