If Democrats demand higher tax revenues as the price of any bipartisan deal, Republicans will have to choose whether to accept them (and alienate a huge chunk of the party) or reject them in favor of the defense cuts (and alienate a huge chunk of the party).
Enter Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who yesterday complicated the Democrats' calculus.
"We're already taking our share of the discretionary cuts as part of this debt-ceiling agreement, and those are going to be tough enough," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday. "I think anything beyond that would damage our national defense."
He said savings need to come from entitlement programs and from higher taxes -- not further defense cuts. In effect, that puts the six Democrats who will soon be appointed to the committee on notice: don't screw around with this.
Democrats are now demanding clarity from the White House: does President Obama think Medicare and Social Security can be cut by $500 billion over 10 years, but the bloated defense budget can not?
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) put the question to Obama in a Friday letter.
"I urge you to make clear that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did not speak for the Administration when he stated yesterday that additional spending cuts, beyond those in the recent debt-ceiling agreement, should come from non-discretionary spending such as Social Security and Medicare while the military budget is spared," Frank wrote.
The key to all of this, of course, remains the GOP's steadfast commitment to never raising a single new dime of revenue. While Panetta made clear that the consequence of GOP intransigence on this score will have a deleterious effect on U.S. security, he also made it harder for Dems to stand firm and let penalties kick in if Republicans don't bend.