The GOP’s Sequestration Schizophrenia

by Andrew Stiles & Jonathan Strong
Some want to save the tough spending cuts; others want a budget deal that adjusts them.

Republicans often hail sequestration’s automatic spending cuts, implemented after the 2011 debt-ceiling fight, as one of their greatest accomplishments since retaking the House in 2010. Now they may not have the votes to pass a long-term spending resolution that preserves them.

Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Senator Patty Murray (D., Wash.), chairmen of their respective chambers’ budget committees, are reportedly nearing an agreement that would roll back scheduled spending caps for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The sequester spending level for the coming year — $967 billion — would be raised to about $1 trillion, with the difference paid for via savings from federal pension reforms and increased fees.

A group of conservative members have written a letter to House speaker John Boehner urging him to hold a vote on a one-year “clean” continuing resolution (CR), which would fund the government at the sequester’s scheduled levels. But such a measure, which would be met with near-unanimous Democratic opposition, may not have the votes to pass, aides say. GOP defense hawks and appropriators, who have long complained about the blunt, across-the-board nature of sequestration and its disproportionate effect on the military, might withhold their support in order to force an agreement that would ease sequestration and restore “regular order” to the budget process.

“A CR right now would be hard to pass in the House, let alone the Senate, as it would effectively force members to proactively vote for a $20 billion across-the-board cut to defense,” says one GOP aide. Others, while not convinced that Republicans concerned for the defense budget would actually vote against a clean CR if it came to the floor, concede that its passage is not assured.

Trading sequester relief for spending reforms was always the likely framework for the not-so-grand deal sought going into the Murray–Ryan negotiations. “Nobody should be surprised” that a potential budget deal would ease the sequester cuts, a GOP aide says. “That was always the intention, and everyone involved knew that going in.”

Republicans have repeatedly pointed out that they are no fans of the blunt, across-the-board nature of the sequester cuts. “There are smarter ways of cutting spending — whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” Ryan said in October. The House has already passed two bills to replace the sequester with alternative cuts and spending reforms. Many Republicans would welcome the chance to outline their own priorities through the appropriations process, which has been on hold for years, rather than simply extending funding priorities established when Nancy Pelosi was still speaker.

The letter from House conservatives acknowledges that the sequester cuts “are inefficiently applied, and that they impact the military disproportionately.” Aides say that the call for a clean CR is not intended as an affront to Ryan but is simply an effort to preempt another government shutdown, which Democrats would likely embrace as a welcome distraction from Obamacare’s disastrous rollout. Boehner has already said that, in the event budget negotiators don’t reach an agreement by the end of this week, the House would move on a short-term CR at current spending levels to give negotiators a few more weeks to reach a deal. That measure would probably pass.

Republicans have had a schizophrenic relationship with the sequester since its inception as part of the Budget Control Act, which ended the 2011 debt ceiling. First, they said the sequester would never go into effect. Months later, when the supercommittee’s failure to reach an agreement triggered the automatic cuts, Republicans argued, correctly, that the sequester was a White House proposal (“the Obamaquester”). As the shutdown neared, GOP leadership crowned it their proudest achievement and fought to preserve it. Now, they appear willing to trade it away, and it’s not yet clear what they’d receive in return.

Any agreement that increases spending from the current baseline is almost certain to face opposition from conservative groups. Heritage Action announced Monday that it “cannot support a budget deal that would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions. While imperfect, the sequester has proven to be an effective tool in forcing Congress to reduce discretionary spending, and a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal will take our nation in the wrong direction.”

Some conservatives have expressed concern that Republicans will cut a deal that doesn’t take full advantage of the leverage they have with sequestration, from which Democrats are so desperate for relief they are even willing to abandon their demand to extend unemployment benefits.

“I am really concerned that there’s a whole host of folks within our conference that are willing to trade [sequestration] away for nothing,” Republican representative Matt Salmon of Arizona told NRO last month. “If we give up sequestration we’ve got no leverage.”

Rolling back sequestration could also face opposition among Senate Republicans. Minority leader Mitch McConnell in particular has been one of the most outspoken proponents of maintaining the sequester. Following a private meeting with House Republicans on November 20, McConnell told reporters: “I wish the budget conference well, but I do hope that at the end of the day we’ll support the Budget Control Act. It’s the law of the land. . . . I think it’s a bad idea to revisit a law that is actually working and reducing spending for the government.”

A senior GOP Senate aide suggests that Ryan “will have to make a pretty good sales job” to convince Senate Republicans to back such a plan. Republicans in the upper chamber have remained largely united in defense of sequestration, despite some grumbling there, too, from hawks and appropriators.

Some Republicans think the push for budget deal is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to take budget issues off the table in 2014, an election year that, thanks to Obamacare, is shaping up rather nicely for the GOP. A long-term agreement would eliminate the chances for another government shutdown or a similarly contentious budget fight fueled by the party’s right flank. It could also facilitate movement on immigration reform.

“Leadership doesn’t want to have these [budget] fights in 2014, they want to get into election mode,” a conservative aide says. A moderate GOP aide, meanwhile, says “the wingers have no leverage right now,” after the disastrous shutdown fight, and are unlikely to drive Republican strategy going forward.

Ryan and Murray will need to announce a deal soon in order to ensure consideration and a vote in the House ahead of a self-imposed deadline of December 13. Ryan spokesman Will Allison said the two leaders “are making progress” toward that goal. But even if a deal is announced soon, the drama is just beginning.

— Andrew Stiles and Jonathan Strong are political reporters for National Review Online.

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