The $1.2 trillion spending sequester was once hailed as a political win for Democrats and as a point of leverage for the White House in the fiscal-cliff negotiations. Republicans, however, now see the automatic spending cuts as a possible trump card as they prepare for a series of budget showdowns.
Congressional Republicans who are committed to reining in federal spending appear willing to let the sequester cuts begin to take effect this year. “Of all the things I’m pretty sure of in life, the sequester will happen,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “Our team wants to see spending cuts.”
Cuts are scheduled to begin on March 1, following a two-month delay agreed to as part of the fiscal-cliff legislation orchestrated by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). If implemented as planned, the sequester would cut about $100 billion from the federal budget in 2013.
Republican sentiment toward sequestration has shifted since the idea was included in the 2011 debt-ceiling agreement. Many GOP lawmakers still harbor deep concerns over the composition of the cuts, which would disproportionately fall on the defense budget. However, having acknowledged that the GOP alternatives to the sequester are unlikely to be approved by the Democratic Senate or signed into law by President Obama, Republicans seem prepared to accept enforceable spending cuts wherever they can get them.
It’s also an eleventh-hour strategy. House Republicans have already voted twice to replace the defense cuts with cuts to other portions of the federal budget. “Clearly, we don’t think the way the sequester is set up will be helpful to national security or the defense industry,” a House leadership aide says. “But we are committed to cutting spending in the federal government. So we’re not turning back on that.”
That view is widely shared by House conservatives. Representative Steve Scalise (R., La.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, would rather see the defense cuts replaced with domestic discretionary cuts but strongly opposes doing away with the sequester altogether. “At the end of the day, we need to make cuts,” he says. “And they have to be real cuts.”
Representative Paul Broun (R., Ga.), a former Marine Corps reservist and Navy officer, agrees, adding that his opposition to further defense cuts would not prevent him from supporting sequestration absent a better alternative. “I’m very unhappy, especially as a member of the military, that we’d be having any more defense cuts,” he says. “But if the sequestration does occur, then I’ll support those cuts. I think it’s necessary to make those real kinds of cuts, and then hopefully we can restore military spending and offset it with other spending cuts elsewhere.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), for his part, recently told the Wall Street Journal that Republicans’ willingness to accept the sequester would reinforce their position in the upcoming budget debate, which will include the debt ceiling and sequestration as well as the continuing resolution that expires at the end of March. It is “as much leverage as we’re going to get,” he said.