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Fri Jan 4, 2013, 09:41 AM

The new conservative purity test

Or: Why the GOP rolled over in the fiscal cliff fight

The White House and its allies have been portraying this week’s fiscal cliff deal as a clear, breakthrough victory. And in a way, they’re right. For 22 years, not a single Republican voted for an income tax rate hike – until this week. And that tax hike was part of a package that left social safety net programs untouched, and that also extended unemployment benefits and several tax credits that are vital to the working poor and middle class.

So yes, the deal that was cut this week was a policy victory much more for Democrats than Republicans. And given the Obama-era GOP’s obstructionist devotion, it’s remarkable that it made it through a Republican-controlled House – remarkable enough to make you wonder what the GOP could possibly have been thinking.

The answer, of course, is that Republicans are convinced they can cut a new deal over the next few months, one that will reflect their zeal for making deep cuts in safety net programs. They believe this because this week’s deal left the big questions about entitlements unresolved. So instead of addressing Medicare and Social Security in the face of a deadline that seemed to give President Obama more leverage, Republicans will now pursue their agenda in the face of three deadlines they think will give them the upper hand: the debt ceiling (which must be addressed by early March), the $1.2 trillion sequester (automatic cuts now slated to be go into effect on March 1) and the continuing resolution that funds the government (due to expire in late March).

There is real anger on the right over this week’s deal, because of the tax hikes and lack of spending cuts. As Jonathan Chait notes, this anger is coming from conservatives who do not recognize that the presence of a Democratic White House and Democratic Senate means the right can’t at this moment achieve 100 percent of its goals. Other, more politically sensible Republicans do understand this, which is why the cliff deal ultimately went through. Obama and Democrats wanted tax hikes and there was a looming statutory deadline that would have resulted in far bigger tax hikes than Obama was seeking; so these Republicans settled for limiting the scope of the hike as much as possible and pushing off the entitlement portion of the debate.



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