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President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press - Ap

Republicans say spending cuts trump defense

  • Article by: JONATHAN WEISMAN and ASHLEY PARKER
  • New York Times
  • February 24, 2013 - 9:12 PM

 

– With Congress unlikely to stop deep automatic spending cuts that strike hard at the military, the fiscal stalemate is highlighting a significant shift in the Republican Party — lawmakers most keenly dedicated to shrinking the size of government are now more dominant than the bloc committed foremost to a robust national defense, particularly in the House.

That reality also underscores what Republicans — and some Democrats — say was a major miscalculation on the part of President Obama, who agreed to put in place the automatic cuts 18 months ago because he believed that sharp cuts in military spending would be enough to force Republicans to agree to a deficit reduction plan including not only cuts but also tax increases favored by Obama.

“Fiscal questions trump defense in a way they never would have after 9/11,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “But the war in Iraq is over. Troops are coming home from Afghanistan, and we want to secure the cuts.”

Rep. Howard P. McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and one of the lawmakers Democrats had hoped would never accept the defense cuts, went almost as far. “Republicans aren’t cookie cutter,” he said, “but we do agree on the basic premise of where we’re trying to go, and if we don’t get our fiscal house in order, it’s very hard to provide for the defense of the nation.”

As Congress prepared to return to Washington over the weekend, the White House tried to raise the ante on the Republicans by highlighting the effects cuts would have on programs in every state.

But at the heart of the battle over the sequester — nearly $1 trillion in cuts set to begin Friday and then accelerate over the next decade — are fundamental misunderstandings between the two parties over their respective priorities.

During the 2011 negotiations to raise the nation’s statutory borrowing limit, Obama wanted an onerous deficit-reduction “trigger” to force both sides to reach a compromise on deficit reduction. For Democrats, the bludgeon that would drive them to negotiate changes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security would be cuts to domestic programs like child nutrition and national parks. For Republicans, the president wanted automatic tax increases to force compromise on the broader tax code.

Republicans balked but offered what Obama thought was a different Republican sacred cow — defense cuts.

Ultimately, taxes trumped all of that. Republicans, who last month let taxes rise on incomes over $400,000 to avert broader tax increases and the “fiscal cliff,” are now ready to stand their ground.

“I really think they misunderstood what happened on the fiscal cliff,” Cole said. “They thought they had Republicans on the run when all they did was push us to high ground. All the muskets are pointing out. You want to charge the hill? Come on.”

But the Republicans were surprised by Democrats, who would not shift the automatic domestic cuts to entitlement programs unless the people least affected by government support — the rich — also bore some of the burden.

“We always thought it wouldn’t happen because the other side wouldn’t stomach the nondefense reductions,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a leading voice among House conservatives. “I guess what happened was each side was too smart for the other.”

Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama, said Sunday that there was no miscalculation. In the final months of the campaign, Republicans “racked up a lot of frequent flier miles booking flights to Virginia” to denounce the coming defense cuts, he said. If Republican leaders would step out of the way, he said, rank-and-file Republicans most worried about the defense cuts would step forward to compromise on taxes.

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