Here is the fiscal Gordian knot:

Congressional Republicans will only agree to sequester relief if offset by mandatory spending cuts, but President Obama and Congressional Democrats will only agree to mandatory spending cuts if taxes are also increased, and Republicans won’t raise taxes.

This fiscal Gordian knot caused the Super Committee to break down in late 2011. There was no agreement to replace the automatic discretionary spending cuts (aka the sequester) that President Obama proposed and signed into law in the Budget Control Act of 2011. He made a fundamental miscalculation when negotiating that law: he mistakenly assumed that Republican defense hawks would squawk so loudly at the disproportionate defense cuts imposed by the sequester that some Republicans would be willing to support tax increases in exchange for higher defense and non-defense discretionary spending.

The sequester replacement negotiations earlier this year were a second attempt by the President to untie the knot. That time he used political force, trying to bludgeon Republicans into agreeing to tax increases. Again he failed.

As the Republican demand to defund ObamaCare dissolved last week, the President and Leader Reid once again erred. Unsatisfied with a straight extension of current law spending and the debt limit and a political victory over Republicans, they increased their demands. They shifted from a sure-win defensive posture to an aggressive but risky offensive posture, demanding higher spending offset in part by tax increases.

House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan floated a sound and predictable Republican alternative: substituting mandatory spending cuts (specifically, changes to entitlement programs proposed by the President in his budget) to offset higher discretionary spending for defense and (I think) non-defense. This formed the core of Speaker Boehner’s recent offer to the President. The President rejected this offer because House Republicans were unwilling to also raise taxes. For a third time the President failed to untie the fiscal Gordian knot.

The negotiation now lies with Senate Leaders Reid and McConnell. (VP Biden, the only member of the President’s team with a proven track record of closing deals with Republicans, has apparently been locked away at Leader Reid’s insistence.) While the form of the Reid-McConnell negotiation is about the timing for when short-term extensions of the continuing resolution and the debt limit would next expire, the underlying substance of the negotiation is this fiscal Gordian knot. Both leaders are trying to structure both this negotiation and the next to maximize their leverage to achieve their respective fiscal goals.

Democrats had the advantage last week when they were playing defense, trying to block Republican demands to defund or delay parts of ObamaCare. The combination of the Cruz-Lee vaporware defund strategy, a House Republican conference unable to agree on anything, a Republican party message that was muddled at best, and an effective use of the bully pulpit by the President led to plummeting poll numbers for Congressional Republicans. Many Senate and some House Republicans seemed anxious to negotiate a deal that would temporarily both end the government shutdown and extend the debt limit deadline. With Leader McConnell’s tacit approval, Senator Collins kicked off the compromise attempt by initiating a rump group negotiation with a few Democrats. Leader Reid killed this fledgling bipartisan negotiation and once again took matters into his own hands, leading to the current discussion with his Republican counterpart.

Republicans now have a slight medium-term advantage for three reasons. I suspect that Democratic appropriators don’t feel as strongly about wanting to raise taxes as Congressional Republicans feel about not wanting to raise taxes. When they are eventually forced to choose, I’ll bet that enough Democrats (specifically, the appropriators) will accept entitlement spending cuts to fully offset higher discretionary spending, without any tax increases.

In addition, current law defaults to a position Republicans are more willing to accept than Democrats. Senators Cruz and Lee learned that he who favors current law has a significant tactical advantage in a shutdown fight. President Obama’s sequester in current law means the same is true on spending, but this time it favors fiscal conservatives.

Finally, when the public debate was “government shutdown vs. defunding ObamaCare,” Democrats had a communications advantage. Now the debate is shifting to “whether to bust the 2011 bipartisan budget deal by increasing spending and taxes.” That is right in the wheelhouse of today’s Republican party.

By insisting on tax increases to offset higher discretionary spending, Leader Reid and President Obama are doing what neither Boehner nor McConnell has been able to do for several weeks: unite Congressional Republicans. And Republicans have a strong counter: we will agree to higher discretionary spending as long as it’s offset only by entitlement spending cuts proposed by the President. I appreciate that many Democrats think it’s outrageous not to also raise taxes (and they’re nuts for thinking that), but that’s not the point. The key is that while most House and Senate Republicans felt forced into a shutdown over “defunding ObamaCare,” I’d bet that most of them will reject any Reid proposal to unravel the only bipartisan fiscal success of the past five years or to increase spending funded by higher taxes, even if such a rejection means that the government shutdown continues.

If Leader Reid and the President continue to insist on more spending and higher taxes, and especially if they want to try to enact it now, I think it backfires on them. They will reunite Congressional Republicans and give Republicans a much stronger rhetorical perch than they have had so far. Unfortunately, they would also continue the current stalemate.

(photo credit: Jay Allen)