On Tuesday reports from the bipartisan summit President Obama convened with congressional leaders suggested that a deal might be reached to break the legislative logjam threatening to paralyze Washington: in exchange for giving the Republicans the tax cuts they desire for the wealthy, Republicans would stop threatening us all with nuclear annihilation. If you care about the national security of the United States, as Obama apparently does, then passing a budget-busting inequality-increasing tax cut is a small price to pay. But what does a tax cut have to do with nuclear security?
Here's the backstory: earlier this year the administration negotiated a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. This is how the world's two biggest nuclear powers agree to avoid wasting money and risking nuclear terrorism—by mutually reducing their vastly excessive stockpiles of nuclear weapons and cooperatively inspecting, safeguarding, and disposing of the materials so that they cannot be obtained by terrorists. Back when Republicans believed in helping, rather than hindering, efforts to protect the U.S. from nuclear attack, they supported these policies. That's why former Republican secretaries of state and national-security advisers, including Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and on Wednesday Colin Powell, have gone to the White House to endorse the deal. Like all foreign treaties, it requires Senate ratification. Arizona Republican John Kyl, aware that threatening to withhold support for the treaty and risking nuclear materials in Russia going unsecured was a powerful card to play, shook down the administration for spending on building fancier nuclear weapons as part of the deal. The administration acquiesced, and Kyl and his Republican colleagues moved on to a new set of complaints, such as saying that two weeks is not enough time to consider START. (The last START was ratified in five days.)
Meanwhile, Republicans have been demanding that the Bush tax cuts, due to expire, be fully and permanently extended. Obama, who was overwhelmingly elected on a platform to extend only the tax cuts for income below $250,000, maintains that the estimated $670 billion difference between his plan and the Republicans' is unaffordable given our long-term budget deficit. He also notes that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has found lower marginal tax rates to be the least effective economic stimulus proposal of 11 ideas it considered.
Caving to Republican demands on tax cuts to pass START seemed like a painful, but possibly necessary, concession on Tuesday. But on Wednesday, Senate Republicans took the tax cuts out of the realm of normal political bargaining. All 42 Republican senators signed a letter to Reid saying, "We write to inform you that we will not agree to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to any legislative item until the Senate has acted to fund the government and we have prevented the tax increase that is currently awaiting all American taxpayers.” This is a remarkable demand since they are asking Reid to perform a magic act: pass a tax cut and "fund the government." Never mind the fact that cutting taxes is counterproductive to funding the government.
"The nation’s unemployment level, stuck near 10 percent, is unacceptable to Americans," the letter says. "Given our struggling economy, preventing the tax increase and providing economic certainty should be our top priority." Given that there are more effective ways of reducing unemployment, Republicans should be advocating infrastructure spending, a payroll-tax holiday, or accelerated depreciation of business expenses if they are so concerned about unemployment.
As The New York Times's David Leonhardt explains, Democrats have painted themselves into a corner by refusing to pass their more popular tax-cut package before the election. Now their options are to either pass a compromise such as Chuck Schumer's suggestion to raise taxes only on income over $1 million per year, if they can find a few Republican votes for it, or risk having to vote up or down on the total Bush tax-cut package after Republicans take control of the House of Representatives next year. Or they could trade tax-cut passage for something useful, like START.
Obviously, Democrats would be stupid to give away the bargaining chip they currently hold—passage of tax cuts—in exchange for nothing in return. If they are going to bite the bullet and pass tax cuts, they should at least get some useful things in return. But what seems obviously stupid to the average person seems often to strike the White House as a brilliant political maneuver.
Update: This post originally incorrectly stated that START was one of the votes Republicans would filibuster until tax cuts are passed. Since treaty ratification is not a legislative action it does not fall under the purview of the letter. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, denied the rumors of a deal linking START to tax cuts, saying, "Nobody is holding START hostage to taxes; nobody has demanded one for the other." Passage of START, he added, "depends, as it always has, on the ongoing negotiations over the treaty."