Republicans Must Rally to Regain Political Advantage on Fiscal Front

Key leaders must prove themselves as credible negotiators.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., left, and Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, arrive to a second Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013.
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Lawmakers barely have one bruising fight in their rearview mirror and already they are girding for the next fiscal battle. That's in part because the solution to the so-called fiscal cliff was a punt on finding trillions in spending cuts necessary to replace the across-the-board scheduled sequester, the deadline for which will coincide with the looming debt ceiling vote.

But the political calculus for the upcoming showdowns remains murky.

And although President Barack Obama has said he does not want the debt ceiling vote – a necessity to allow the federal government to continue paying its debts – to be a bargaining chip in larger tax and spending negotiations, it's somewhat inevitable.

"House Republicans have much more leverage going into the debate over the debt ceiling," says Ron Bonjean, a Republican political consultant. He says the GOP-led House will push for spending cuts and entitlement reforms in exchange for their agreeing to a higher debt ceiling.

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"It will be hard for the president not to make significant concessions," Bonjean says. "The president's perceived political mandate over the middle class has now been fulfilled with making regular tax cuts permanent. And now, Republicans can turn to forcing the president to get more spending cuts than he ever wanted."

During similar negotiations in 2011, Boehner's insistence at including spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit resulted in the creation of a series of across-the-board sequestration cuts, now delayed thanks to the most recent maneuvering.

Phil Wallach, governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institute, says the difficulty for both Republicans and Democrats lies in the fact Americans support spending cuts in general but not when it comes to specifics.

"It's a real political riddle for them because the American people as a whole are fervently in favor of the abstract position about smaller government but not at all supportive of the actual ways of getting there," he says.

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The onus will be on the Republicans to enumerate the cuts they envision, Wallach says, something they have been reluctant to do so far preferring instead to pressure Obama to take the lead instead.

"I do think there are a lot of people in the Republican caucus who do want dramatic cuts but it's not clear that the leadership is on the same page as them or thinks that that's good for the near or long term political future of their party," Wallach says.

A deeper obstacle for the GOP is who will be a credible leader of negotiations with the Democrats. House Speaker John Boehner, just narrowly re-elected to his post thanks to opposition from the conservative wing of his party, has proven an inability to rally support around his bargaining positions.

"The Republicans have to recognize if they want to be the party of fiscal responsibility and economic opportunity versus the go-along-to-get-along party, they are going to have to do a lot better job at the negotiating table," says Ford O'Connell, a GOP consultant who worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proved to be the most effective deal-maker in the most recent fight, salvaging a deal with Vice President Joe Biden in the 11th hour, but it's not clear if he will be able to craft a package that will pass muster with Boehner's members again.

The GOP struggles may cause them to squander the perceived advantage they have, especially if Obama rallies public support around keeping government running and seeing Republicans as an obstacle to that, experts say.

"Holding a line against a rising tide of debt, I think that still polls well, but I think Obama will be able to take that message to the American people," Wallach says. "The kind of concessions they got in 2011 are just about as big as they could possibly expect and I wouldn't expect them to do as well this time around."