Supercommittee Republicans Get Ready to Fail

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 16 2011 9:27 AM

Supercommittee Republicans Get Ready to Fail

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WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 13: Committee co-chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) (L) speaks as co-chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) listens during a hearing before the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee, also known as the supercommittee, September 13, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee heard from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf on 'The History and Drivers of Our Nation's Debt and Its Threats.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Supercommittee co-chairman Jeb Hensarling didn't make much news when Candy Crowley asked him to imagaine failure. "We have a goal of reaching $1.5 trillion of deficit reduction over ten years, but it is important to note that if that goal, for some reason, we fail in that goal, under law, there is still a $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction that will take place," he said. "What I'm willing to do is be committed to ensuring that at least America gets that $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction that congress would have 13 months to do it in a smarter fashion."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

Again, this didn't seem to light the grass on fire in Washington. But Hensarling's interview with Larry Kudlow last night? Different story.

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KUDLOW: Why not pull that trigger? Trillion dollars, 1.2 trillion, that's OK. At least it's lower spending.
HENSARLING: Well, Larry, a couple of important points. You're right, a lot of people don't realize $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction is going to happen anyway. We'd prefer to do it in a smarter fashion. And the 1.2, frankly, half of that is aimed at national security. Leon Panetta, our secretary of defense, says that will hollow out our defense. So, number one, I would be committed to keeping the 1.2. We've got 13 months to find a smarter way to do it. I think the cuts that are aimed at defense, frankly, go too far. But this is one--this is a very important point that you make. You know, if the 1.5 isn't met, there's a 1.2 backstop right there. That's...
KUDLOW: And what matters is 2013. The all the out year stuff for defense and non-defense will be fixed later with the new Congresses, new presidents and whatnot. At least grab off some spending reduction.
HENSARLING: Well, again, Larry, something is better than nothing.

A "smarter way," a "smarter fashion." In both cases, Hensarling is attacking the underlying threat of the "triggers," which were designed to be so terrifying that Congress would pass a compromise instead. (Kudlow picked up on it; Crowley let it go.) But this is just one GOP supercommittee member, right? Well, no. On Fox News Sunday, Pat Toomey went to the same well.

I'm not giving up on getting something done. I really think we still can. And I'm going to do everything I can to achieve that. But in a very, very unfortunate event that we don't, I think it's very likely that Congress would reconsider the configuration of that sequestration and considers, is this really the best way to do it? I think that would be a lively debate that will occur and the nature of those cuts, which I think the cuts have to occur. They might occur in a different fashion.

This isn't how it's supposed to work. The cuts are supposed to be stupid. They're so stupid that everyone will be forced to the table, lest they be responsible for taking a Sam Raimi chainsaw to the defense budget and Medicaid. The correct answer to Kudlow etc is some version of "Well, we're not going to fail, because if we do we will have to pass these triggers." Instead, Republicans are talking about rejiggering the triggers, which would set up a fight on defense spending, which Democrats would be hard pressed to win when they don't control the House and when 21 of their senators are vulnerable to truth-remixing Crossroads GPS ads about how they literally pried guns out of the hands of soldiers. Best case scenario: This is a GOP negotiating tactic. Worst case scenario?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.