How did everything change?
Republicans, especially in the House, have become operationally gloomy about negotiating any new budget deal with Obama. They are a defeated force and only keep the appearance of poking and prodding for more deficit reduction. Whether they lost the tax debate or not during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, Republicans believe they did. They know they lost the 2011 payroll-tax debate. They rolled over on the debt ceiling before even raising a paw in protest. Republicans haven’t turned into complete lapdogs on deficit reduction, but they have become territorial on the sequester, the only actual cuts in federal spending they’ve achieved and the only ones they imagine themselves achieving in the near future. Futility had led to fixation.
And that means politics and legislative battle lines are changing. Republicans are now signaling (and numerous senior GOP leadership staff tell me this is no bluff) that they can and will live with last year’s unimaginable defense cuts to stick with the budget discipline contained in the Budget Control Act. This unites House Republicans especially.
Tea-party-inspired conservatives now say the only thing worse than defense cuts is no cuts at all. Increasingly, GOP rank and file are nodding in agreement. And GOP leaders now see sequester as the only point of leverage and accountability for Obama. If he wants to replace spending cuts with higher taxes, Republicans will fight that battle—and prefer it to clashes over default or a government shutdown. Obama owns the sequester as much as Republicans, and enforcing what is (spending cuts in law) beats fighting over what might be (default or shutdown).