Anyone wondering why we are facing the mindless prospect of deep and potentially catastrophic cuts in critical government services—thanks to the sequester—and why President Barack Obama has had so much difficulty in dealing with congressional Republicans need only listen to the Republican responses to the president’s State of the Union address last night. The fact that one Republican can no longer speak for the party is telling. While Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was selected to give the Republican Party’s official response, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) gave the response from the other wing of the party—the Tea Party Republicans.
During his remarks, Sen. Rubio actually blamed the president for sequestration, saying, “And tonight, he even criticized us for refusing to raise taxes to delay military cuts—cuts that were his idea in the first place.” As Politico’s fact checkers were quick to point out, Rubio didn’t portray the president’s remarks accurately. The president did criticize Republicans for trying to prevent defense cuts as part of the sequester by making cuts in nondefense programs deeper, but his remarks said nothing about raising taxes to delay military cuts.
Sen. Rubio was even more out of line in asserting that sequestration was the president’s proposal in the first place. Sequestration is a system of automatic across-the-board cuts that were attached at the last minute to the debt ceiling legislation passed in August 2011, just as the United States was about to tumble into default. The final agreement came after months of negotiations in which the White House consistently demanded a “clean” debt ceiling bill with no riders.
In response to demands from the most extreme elements of the House Republican Conference, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) brought the president’s request for an unamended version of the debt ceiling to the House floor on May 31, 2011, where it was defeated with all Republicans present voting “No.” Comments at the time of the vote from some of the more conservative members of the House were very upfront about their reasoning for wanting to put the United States in the position where it might no longer be able to pay its bills. As former Rep. Allen West (R-FL), a leader of the conservative Republican faction, put it in a press release issued after the vote:
I voted against increasing a debt ceiling absent of spending control measures … I will not vote for this debt increase unless all of the following criteria are met or included in the final bill that would aim to raise the debt limit … A failsafe trigger mechanism must be put in place that would automatically cut spending.
The president and Rep. Boehner negotiated for another two months trying to find a more sensible and less destructive alternative to this demand. At times it appeared that they were quite close but repeatedly proposals that Rep. Boehner agreed to in principle were rejected by the extreme right-wing of his conference.
Finally, as the nation hovered at the edge of default, a mechanism was agreed upon that met the demands of those whose votes were key to preventing a catastrophic assault on the good faith and credit of the U.S. government. Many Republicans said they had hoped it would never come to that, but others—the critical voting bloc of Tea Party Republicans—said just the opposite.
After the vote that finally secured passage of the debt ceiling bill, Freedom Works, a central organ of the Tea Party movement, in a piece called “The Tea Party Stood Strong During Debt-Ceiling Debate,” claimed that:
The debt ceiling deal surely doesn’t go far enough to curtail government spending but we have reasons to be optimistic. Just a couple months ago, President Obama was expecting to get a simple debt ceiling increase with no strings attached which had been the standard procedure in Washington for some time. We didn’t let that happen. We stood by our principles by calling out Speaker Boehner when he was wrong. The Tea Party drove the debt-ceiling debate.
Sen. Rubio’s amnesia last night regarding the debt limit debate and the genesis of sequestration is remarkable. But even more remarkable is the dramatic contrast between Sen. Rubio’s implied view on the merits of sequestration—“It’s not our fault, the president made us do it”—and the view expressed by his fellow Senate Republican Rand Paul. In his post-State of the Union remarks, Sen. Paul derided “some Republicans” who are following the president’s “woe is me” view of sequestration. He argued that not only should sequestration be implemented, but it should also perhaps be more than tripled in size. He stated that, “Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion.”
The reason the president can’t deal with the Republicans in Congress is that they can’t deal with themselves. They are deeply divided between the more moderate elements represented by Sen. Rubio and Rep. Boehner—men who would have been viewed as being on the far-right of the American political spectrum just a generation ago—and the ultraright antigovernment faction represented by Sen. Paul and House members such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and Rep Tom Cole (R-OK), who seem to largely dominate party policy.
This ultraconservative faction of the GOP does not seem to mind that the looming sequester will mean that Navy aircraft carriers are being taken out of service while the North Koreans are testing nuclear weapons; that millions of Americans each day will be standing in lines to clear airport security that will be about an hour longer than the ones they currently face; that federal law enforcement agencies will soon be forced to furlough most, if not all, of their workforce for as much as one day a week over the next seven months; that the American meat industry will be on the verge of a shutdown for lack of meat inspectors; or that seniors will likely be put on hold for long periods when they call Social Security offices seeking information about their benefits. (For a longer list of sequestration effects on other vital services see this report just released by the minority staff of the House Appropriations Committee.) To the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, all government is bad. To them the only approach to government is to cut government—cut it with a meat axe, cut it with a scalpel, or cut it with a chainsaw. The only concern is the size of the cuts.
Until mainstream Republicans stand up to that radical view, there is little likelihood that the president can craft a bipartisan deal to avert sequestration—or, for that matter, reach any compromise on any of the pressing issues facing the country going forward.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.