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The GOP’s Sequestration Schizophrenia
Some want to save the tough spending cuts; others want a budget deal that adjusts them.

Budget committee chairs Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray

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Andrew Stiles

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.

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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.



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