One day after a powerful group of House Appropriations Committee “cardinals” rang an alarm bell over pending sequester spending cuts, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell made a rare appearance at a closed-door House GOP conference meeting to plead for calm.
McConnell, a former appropriator himself, urged his House colleagues to stick together, arguing that the Budget Control Act’s across-the-board cuts are the GOP’s only salvation as Washington’s minority party. “He argued that we need to do everything we can to preserve sequester-level funding,” one member in the room says.
Republicans are still in a period of introspective soul-searching following the bruising shutdown episode, but the debate has picked up in the past few days as lawmakers begin to eye the January 15, 2014, sequester cuts and expiring continuing resolution (CR) and, several months after that, the needed debt-ceiling increase.
At his weekly meeting with his whip team Monday night, for example, House whip Kevin McCarthy made a preemptive effort to try to stomp out any thought of another shutdown before it starts. The amiable Californian told members to start thinking about the issue now, so the GOP doesn’t end up without a plan three days before the law expires. It’s not clear whether McCarthy’s shutdown concern is warranted. There are no calls to use the expiring CR to wage another Obamacare battle, even though the law’s rollout has been far worse than its fiercest detractors expected.
Instead, Republicans in the cloakroom are debating how urgently a sequester fix is needed. Leadership, conservatives, and most of the conference seems to be united around a “wait it out” approach while appropriators and defense hawks are beginning to panic about the scope of the cuts. “It’s pretty gruesome,” says Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers about the cuts that are coming midway through January. “It’s our leverage, but at some point we’re going to have to use it,” Representative Charlie Dent, an appropriator and chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group caucus, tells me. “There’s a certain urgency from my perspective.”
At a breakfast interview at National Review’s Washington, D.C., office Monday, Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist offers a colorful dramatization of the “wait it out” approach.
Frequently putting his hands around his neck in a choking motion to signify the impact of the sequester on Democrats, Norquist said Republicans can afford to sit back and let Democrats come to them with offers on how to replace the sequester with entitlement reforms.
A few months after the BCA was enacted, as the so-called “super committee” was deadlocked over how to replace the $1.2 trillion in sequester cuts, Norquist says then–senator John Kerry approached him in a Senate hallway.
“He leans real close and says, ‘Grover, we need your help,’” pitching a deal for $1.4 trillion in tax increases to not only replace the sequester cuts but help pay for new stimulus spending. “Delusional!” Norquist says.
To help enact the BCA, Speaker John Boehner and other top Republicans vowed to members of the House Armed Services Committee that the sequester would never go into effect. When the cuts first did go into effect, the House GOP engaged in an extensive public campaign to show how the idea was originally proposed by President Obama, including the Twitter hashtag “#Obamaquester.”
Nowadays, Republicans talk about the sequester as a prized possession, their only real victory in the three years they’ve controlled the House in the Obama era.
“Sequester, fine. No tax increases, fine,” Norquist explains. “We’ll just live with where we are. We’re happy, which is why when some of the puppies jump up and say, ‘No! We have to have—,’ we say, ‘Shut up, we don’t have to have anything.’ If they are two evenly matched guys and they both veto the deal, the guy that asked for something just lost the discussion. ‘Oh you want something? Well, it’ll cost you.’”
The puppies are starting to jump up.
“I am really concerned that there’s a whole host of folks within our conference that are willing to trade that away for nothing,” says Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona, explaining that defense hawks and appropriators offered fierce pushback to McConnell in the closed-door meeting.
The question, going forward, is whether the GOP can mask the pain it’s feeling from the sequester in the hope that Democrats will cry uncle first, offering pined-after entitlement reforms.
“I don’t disagree with what they’re saying. I think sequestration is not the best policy. But it’s the only leverage we’ve got right now to try to get these other guys to the table. If we give up sequestration we’ve got no leverage. We found that [in the shutdown]. We have zero leverage. We’ve gotta hold on to that,” Salmon says.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.