Their thinking was this: The GOP was on the wrong side of the polls in the battle over raising taxes on the highest earners. Surveys showed substantial public support for the president and Democrats on that issue. But Republicans are on the right side of the polls in the battle over fiscal responsibility. The GOP, the party trying to put sensible limits on Obama's runaway spending, is better positioned to make the case for cuts.
"We're making a hard pivot to spending," says a senior GOP Senate aide. "Our view is that the revenue question has now been settled. It's behind us. Now we fight on spending, and we've got two good opportunities to do so coming up -- the debt limit and the continuing resolution."
The Republican strategy is more than just positioning. It's the right thing to do. Everybody knows Obama's tax increases will do little to reduce deficits in coming years. They'll add about $60 billion in revenue a year, turning a $1.2 trillion deficit into a $1.14 trillion deficit. And everybody knows entitlement spending is on its way to eating the entire federal budget. It has to be reduced or disaster awaits.
Nevertheless, the mood on the political left since the election has become one of solid opposition to any and all cuts in entitlements. The president won the election, activists on the left say, so he should get the tax increases he wants and Republicans should not get the spending cuts they want. Obama, who has never shown any serious interest in cutting spending anyway, will be under pressure not to concede anything.
And the president is not through trying to raise taxes. In coming days, he will cite the Republican offer, made just after the election, to raise revenue by eliminating tax deductions and broadening the base. Now that he has won the fight to raise tax rates instead, Obama will demand that Republicans give in on deductions, too, as they had once offered.
The GOP hopes to stop that cold. "The president got his revenue," Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell said Jan. 3 in his opening remarks to the new Senate. "Now it's time to turn squarely to the real problem, which is spending."
But Republicans know they will soon be cast as the villain again. During the fiscal cliff fight, they were accused of being the party ready to plunge the nation into financial disaster on behalf of their millionaire and billionaire friends. During the debt ceiling fight, they will be tagged as the party willing to take the nation to the very brink of default to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the elderly.
That will make for a tough debate. In addition, given the federal government's horrendous spending excesses, Republicans know the debt ceiling will have to go up eventually, probably with some GOP support.
Nevertheless, Republicans seem ready for the fight. And unlike the fiscal cliff battle, when it was obvious that taxes were going to go up, there's no clear sense of how this one will end.
Nobody knows, even the main players. To cite an example from the fiscal cliff fight, shortly before the deadline I talked to two senior senators, one from each party, and was struck by how little they knew about what was going on. Of course, they knew the issues and the moving parts, but when it came to the actual provisions of the bill that was being fashioned as we spoke, they were flying blind. What would the tax rate cutoffs be? What about the sequestration cuts? And the other issues, like estate taxes? The Senate leadership was making the decisions, and even senior lawmakers didn't know what was happening. Expect a lot of that in the next few months.
So Republicans enter the debt ceiling fight, knowing there will be plenty of confusion, name calling and desperate maneuvering. But they know one other thing, too. They know they're doing the right thing.