The General Assembly’s Republican minority faces a stark choice: Help a Democratic governor shape a politically risky deficit-mitigation plan, or risk being seen as obstructionist or, even worse, irrelevant.

By agreeing to come to the table for the start of deficit-reduction talks on Monday, the GOP minority leaders, Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield, are choosing relevance.

“That’s leadership,” Cafero said.

It also is the second effort in a year by the two Republican leaders, the Democratic majority and the Democratic governor to contrast themselves with the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, the legislature acted nearly unanimously to pass a bipartisan jobs plan Malloy negotiated with Democratic and Republican leaders.

On Friday, McKinney said he sensed a desire “to demonstrate to all of Connecticut that we’re not Washington, D.C., that we’re not engaged in a partisan gridlock where both parties are to blame and neither party wants to talk to each other.”

There was relatively little downside last fall to unite behind incentives for businesses to add jobs, but a bipartisan effort around spending cuts is different, especially when the original budget passed without a single GOP vote.

“I don’t think there is going to be applause at the passage of the deficit mitigation package from any corner, whether it’s bipartisan or not,” McKinney said. “Politically, there may be some who would argue, ‘This is their problem. Let them fix it.’ “

Cafero rejected the notion that Republicans are eager to slash the budget.

“This whole notion that Republicans are salivating at the opportunity to cut is baloney,” Cafero said. “This is a very difficult thing to do. It is a dreadful thing to do. It ain’t going to be easy.”

Malloy and the Republicans begin with sharply different views of the nature of the current-year deficit of about $415 million: Malloy is intent on convincing voters it is a relatively minor adjustment, while the GOP calls it a crisis.

Even as Malloy and the Republicans are preparing for bipartisan talks, there is jousting to define the challenge.

“Let’s put it in perspective. We’re talking about a little over 1 percent of expenditures,” Malloy said Friday. “We should be able to do that on a bipartisan basis. So I look forward to working with Republicans and Democrats to get the deal done.”

(The deficit as projected by the comptroller’s office actually is about 2 percent.)

Cafero, who is considering challenging Malloy for governor in 2014, said the governor consistently downplays the problem. Cafero says Connecticut still faces structural fiscal problems, while Malloy views them as cyclical.

“Admit the depth of the problem,” Cafero said.

Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser, said, “No one is trying to minimize anything. We’re trying to put it in perspective.”

To that end, Occhiogrosso and Malloy emphasize the $3.6 billion deficit that Malloy inherited upon taking office in January 2011 as the first Democratic governor in 20 years.

Their message is similar to the one employed by President Obama during this re-election campaign: Economic problems remain, but we have made significant progress.

The talks that begin Monday are aimed at devising cuts the General Assembly can endorse at a one-day special session on Dec. 19.

A month later, the General Assembly returns for its 2013 session, when Malloy and legislators must find a way to close an even bigger budget shortfall — most likely without a bipartisan approach.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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