October 07, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Observing the correlation of forces in this city and the intensity of conviction in the base of each party, the outcome of the ongoing fiscal fight between Barack Obama and the Tea Party Republicans seems preordained.

Deadlock. There will be no big jobs-for-taxes deal. The can will be kicked down the road into the next administration.

A second truth is emerging. When the cutting comes, as it shall, the Pentagon will be first to ascend the scaffold.

Why so? Consider.

The Republican House cannot agree to tax increases without risking retribution from the base and repudiation by its presidential candidates. All have pledged to oppose even a dollar in tax hikes for 10 dollars in spending cuts.

For his part, Obama has refused to lay out any significant cuts in the big Democratic entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare.

As for the hundreds of billions in Great Society spending for Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, earned income tax credits, aid to education, Pell grants and housing subsidies, neither Harry Reid’s Senate nor Obama, in trouble with his African-American base, will permit significant cuts.

That leaves two large items of a budget approaching $4 trillion: interest on the debt, which must be paid, and national defense.

Pentagon chief Leon Panetta can see the writing on the wall.

“Close the bases, and bring the troops home.”

Defense is already scheduled for $350 billion in cuts over the decade. If the super-committee fails to come up with $1.2 trillion in specified new cuts, an automatic slicer chops another $600 billion from defense.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon has issued an analysis of what that would mean: a U.S. Army and Marine Corps reduction of 150,000 troops, retirement of two carrier battle groups, loss of one-third of Air Force fighter planes and a “hollow force” unable to meet America’s commitments.

Also on the chopping block would be the Navy and Marine Corps versions of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. If the super-committee trigger has to be pulled, says Panetta, “we’d be shooting ourselves in the head.”

That half defense-half domestic formula for automatic budget cuts was programmed into the slicer to force Republicans to put tax hikes on the table. They will refuse. For tax hikes would do more damage to the party than the slicing would the Pentagon.

Thus America approaches her moment of truth.


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