Where are the GOP's "fiscal cliff" spending cuts?

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) holds his weekly news briefing in the Capitol Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol December 13, 2012 in Washington, DC.
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News Analysis

Discussing the looming "fiscal cliff" Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said that President Obama "is just not serious about cutting spending." On Wednesday, in a speech in which he again accused the president of a lack of seriousness, Boehner asked, "Where are the president's spending cuts?"

It's a strange question, when you think about it. It's not the president, after all, that is particularly interested in cutting spending. Mr. Obama has made clear that his priority in helping to address the debt and deficit is increasing revenue - the money coming into the government. And he has made clear a major component of how he wants to do it: By letting tax rates on income over $250,000 revert from 35 percent to the Clinton-era level of 39.6 percent.

Boehner and his fellow Republicans are the ones who say that spending cuts should be the priority. It thus follows that they would be the ones to offer ideas about specific spending cuts. To date, they have not. When reporters ask what Republicans would cut, GOP aides refer to three documents: The 2012 House GOP budget, 2011 testimony by Democrat Erskine Bowles, and the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act that would replace the automatic cuts to defense that are part of the "fiscal cliff" with cuts to food stamp and other mandatory programs.

There are two big problems with that response. One, which was discussed here, is that Republicans are broadly proposing to replace the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts in the "fiscal cliff," which are split between defense and domestic spending, with $1.2 trillion in cuts focused only on domestic spending. Democrats have no incentive to accept such a deal, and plenty of reason to reject it.

The bigger problem is that Republicans refuse to make clear exactly what they want to cut in a  "fiscal cliff" deal. Telling reporters to look at an old House budget is not the same as making a concrete offer. CBS News asked a Boehner representative for a clear statement of what the House speaker wants to cut on Thursday. We did not receive a response.

Boehner's supporters might argue that Mr. Obama has a responsibility to offer spending cuts, since Boehner has already made an offer on revenue. But that argument doesn't hold up: While Boehner has said he is willing to accept $800 billion in additional revenue - a significant concession - he won't say how he would get there. He says he would reform the tax code in part by closing loopholes and deductions, but he won't say which ones.

The $800 billion offer is thus little more than a target. "Republicans put out a letter that has more signatures than it had ideas," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. "It had, like, one number." To use Boehner's own formulation: Where, exactly, are the speaker's revenue increases?

All this concerns what both sides are saying publicly, of course. Behind closed doors, where the real action takes place, both may well be offering serious and specific proposals. And Boehner is in a difficult position: He must convince his caucus, which is adamantly opposed to increasing tax rates on anyone, to agree to a deal in which tax rates go up on the wealthiest Americans. It's no easy task - though it's made slightly easier by the fact that in the absence of a deal, tax rates are automatically going to go up next year on almost everyone.

That helps explain Boehner's tough public posture: If he looks like he's giving in too easily to Mr. Obama's demands, he will have a harder time getting the votes he needs to get a deal through the House. He needs to look like he's pushing hard and doing everything he can to hold the line on tax rates. The White House understands all this, of course. But that knowledge doesn't make Boehner's call for more specifics from them -- despite the fact that he refuses to offer specifics himself -- any easier for Democrats to swallow.

One challenge for Boehner is that his position simply isn't all that popular with the American people. Polls show that a majority of Americans support Mr. Obama's proposal to raise tax rates on the top two percent of Americans, which is why the president keeps talking about it. They tend to oppose major spending cuts to domestic and entitlement programs, such as raising the age for Medicare coverage from 65 to 67. Republicans do relatively well with the American people when they talk broadly about cutting spending, but they run into trouble when the conversation turns to the specifics of what they might cut. That's why Boehner wants the president to lay out the spending cuts for him: If the proposal comes from the White House, the White House will have to deal in large part with the political fallout.

But the White House almost certainly isn't going to hand Boehner that gift. No matter how many times Boehner calls for a detailed White House plan on spending cuts, the public likely won't see specifics until an overall deal is worked out behind closed doors. It simply doesn't make sense for the White House to discuss spending cuts in the absence of an agreement on revenue increases that make those cuts more palatable to Democrats. Any suggestion otherwise is simply the latest instance in a seemingly-never ending stream of "fiscal cliff" political theater.