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Why Republicans can’t decide exactly what spending cuts they want

Republicans say they're desperate to cut spending. The funny thing is what happens when they're asked what, exactly, they want to cut.


Late last week, Donald Trump delivered a firm directive to congressional Republicans, though GOP lawmakers probably felt a little confused by the message. On the one hand, the former president wants his party to use debt ceiling hostage tactics to pursue their goals, including spending cuts. On the other hand, Trump also insisted, “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security.”

“Cut waste, fraud and abuse everywhere that we can find it, and there’s plenty of it,” the former president added in the new two-minute video. “But do not cut the benefits our seniors worked for and paid for their entire lives.”

It’s become an increasingly common refrain in GOP circles. Rep. Jim Banks, the former chair of the Republican Study Committee told CBS News yesterday that as his party moves forward with a debt ceiling crisis, cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid won’t be on the table. “I don’t think that any of us want to touch” the social-insurance programs, the Indiana congressman said.

Two days earlier, Rep. Nancy Mace appeared on “Meet the Press,” and Chuck Todd asked the South Carolina Republican — who’d just emphasized her desire to cut spending — if she could point to one idea she’d put on the table. “Well, obviously no cuts to Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security,” the congresswoman replied. “That’s a non-starter for either side.”

The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell summarized the problem nicely in an excellent column:

Republicans have Very Serious budget demands. Unfortunately, they can’t identify what any of those demands are. They say they want to reduce deficits — but meanwhile have ruled out virtually every path for doing so (cuts to defense, cuts to entitlements, wiping out nondefense discretionary spending, or raising taxes).

The circumstances are bewildering. On the one hand, we see congressional Republicans, after decades in which the GOP made deficits vastly larger, launching a debt ceiling crisis. Though they’ve been reluctant to fill in the blanks on their ransom note, party officials have said they’ll cause an economic catastrophe on purpose, deliberately harming Americans, unless Democrats agree to dramatic spending cuts.

On the other hand, we also see those same congressional Republicans say they don’t want to cut Social Security. Or Medicare. Or Medicaid. Or veterans benefits. Or funds for the military.

What would it take to balance the budget — an ostensible GOP goal — while leaving all of these priorities intact? Rampell’s column went to explain that would necessitate “eliminating nearly all other domestic spending.”

And before the right responds, “That sounds great,” let’s note that such a move would mean no funding for border protection, air-traffic control, agriculture, and a few thousand of the priorities that benefit the American public.

The other avenue toward a balanced budget would be increasing government revenue, but much of the contemporary Republican Party has said it will never support increasing any taxes on any one at any time for any reason.

Or put another way, the GOP wants to address deficits, but not in a way that cuts spending or raises taxes.

As their debt ceiling crisis advances, Republicans keep saying they want a “serious” conversation about the nation’s finances. It’d be far easier to find the line credible if they approached this issue in a serious way.