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Could new Congress thwart GOP on spending cuts?

As the 113th Congress gets sworn in Thursday, there’s a fear that’s been keeping many progressives up at night: With the issue of tax cuts now off the table
House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)
House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama

As the 113th Congress gets sworn in Thursday, there’s a fear that’s been keeping many progressives up at night: With the issue of tax cuts now off the table after the fiscal cliff deal, Republicans may have the leverage to use upcoming showdowns over sequestration and the debt ceiling to force major spending cuts.

But could changes in Congress get in their way?

The fiscal deal may have been reasonable on its own terms, but it didn’t address perhaps Obama’s greatest area of vulnerability: The debt ceiling. That means that in around two months, when Obama needs to raise the government’s borrowing limit again to avoid defaulting on our debts, he’ll need Republican consent. And that in turn could allow the GOP to demand draconian spending cuts their conservative wing has been agitating for in exchange. They pulled the same trick in 2011—which is how the fiscal cliff came into being in the first place.

Until recently, raising the debt ceiling has been treated as a routine matter by Congress, and Obama has pledged not to negotiate over the issue. But if Speaker John Boehner et al are determined to play hardball—and they’ve given every indication that they are—the president may have little option. Progressives fear that could mean Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and key discretionary spending programs that low-income Americans rely on, end up on the chopping block.

“I now fear that we are heading toward a crisis that can dwarf what we’ve just been through,” Robert Greenstein, president of the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told The New York Times. “We really won’t know how best to view the deal, and how well the White House has done, until the debt limit is done.”

Adding to the concern is the sequester—the package of tax hikes and spending cuts that was postponed for two months thanks to the fiscal deal, but is now set to go into effect in March if there’s no deal on deficit reduction. That second fiscal cliff could bolster the GOP’s leverage further.

But things might not be quite as hopeless as they seem. That’s because the new Congress isn’t quite the same as the old one that got us into this mess.

For one thing, Democrats have expanded their Senate majority from 53 to 55. That might not sound like much, but it could make it easier to overcome a GOP filibuster, if they can peel off a few Republicans who worry about being blamed for the fiasco of a default. And if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sticks to his word to move ahead with filibuster reform—an idea with strong backing from many of the incoming senators, including Elizabeth Warren—they might be able to move ahead with a simple majority, sidelining Mitch McConnell and co. entirely.

Even in the House, things could be easier this time around. In passing the fiscal cliff deal with Democratic votes, and despite the opposition of most House GOPers, Boehner broke with his party’s modus operandi over the last decade, which dictated that leaders only bring to the floor bills backed by the majority of the GOP caucus. If Boehner is again willing to ignore the “Hastert Rule” and stand up to his caucus’s Tea Party wing, and Obama sticks to his guns, there could be a chance for the White House to get a deal without giving away too much.

And there’s also the chance, of course, that, faced with taking the blame for a default, Republicans will lose their nerve on the debt ceiling.

To be sure, that’s a lot of if’s. And there’s little question that with the Bush tax cuts now in the rear-view mirror and the twin deadlines of the debt ceiling and the sequester approaching, the negotiating terrain is far more favorable to the GOP. But the landscape may also have changed in Democrats’ favor, too.