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It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the White House and a re-elected president with political capital to spend.
But President Barack Obama is in a position of supplication to Hill Republicans, talking loudly and often about the harm of automatic budget cuts but lacking the leverage to get the GOP to buckle.
Senior administration officials had for months predicted that Republicans would cave on the sequester and agree to more taxes, even after agreeing to $600 billion in tax increases in the New Year’s Eve fiscal-cliff deal.
After all, aides noted, Republicans had caved again and again: on the 2012 payroll tax cut, on tax rate increases for the wealthy and on a debt ceiling extension.
Why not one more GOP rollover? Polls seemed solidly in the president’s favor.
But so far it’s not working out as the West Wing planned.
Obama held out hope that the GOP might yet yield following a face-to-face meeting with congressional leaders that accomplished nothing.
He said he understands that Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio has strong opposition in his conference to allowing any more revenue now.
“My hope is that they can do it later,” after the effects of the sequester kick in across the country, the president said.
But Obama gave away the one big legislative stick he has in his arsenal. He said he wouldn’t risk a government shutdown by demanding a sequester fix in the continuing resolution needed to fund the government past March 27.
“I think it’s the right thing to do to make sure that we don’t have a government shutdown,” he said on March 1.
The White House had been quietly signaling to its Democratic allies on the Hill that Obama would not threaten a veto out of fear the public would blame Democrats for the shutdown.
But the decision only underscored what many Hill Democrats believe was a major negotiating error by the White House and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the fiscal-cliff deal.
By making all of the tax cuts permanent but only avoiding the sequester for two months, the president traded away most of his leverage in return for only half of the revenue he had been seeking — and no clear way to force Republicans to the table for more.
“It’s playing out exactly as we warned them it would,” a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said.
It’s not as if Republicans were shy about making that argument at the time: GOP leaders immediately said that the deal effectively set in stone revenue for the president’s second term.