Who’s Afraid of Sequestration?
Willingness to let sequester cuts take effect this year could be the GOP’s trump card.

House Speaker John Boehner


Andrew Stiles

Boehner explained that it was the White House, not Republicans, who were eager to discuss the prospect of replacing the sequester. “They were always counting on us to bring it to the table,” he said.

Indeed, Republicans may be better positioned to prevail in a fight over keeping the sequester than in a fight over the debt limit, which carries considerable risk to the economy. While severe, the consequences of sequestration would be far more manageable than a default on the national debt. A senior GOP aide notes that sequestration “doesn’t have the cliff-like finality” of default and could be more easily dealt with retroactively through legislation to restore defense spending.

The White House, meanwhile, has said it opposes the sequester but would consider replacing it only with a “balance” of spending cuts and tax increases. Republicans scoff at the idea. “The president could start by helping us find ways to responsibly deal with the problem, but that’s not happening,” says the House leadership aide. “We’re certainly not replacing [the sequester] with tax hikes. That’s a nonstarter. That debate is over.”

Norquist argues that letting the sequester or a package of alternative spending cuts of equal value take effect as planned would be a significant win for Republicans. “It’s a real spending cut, and it draws blood on the other side,” he says. “And if Democrats don’t like it, say, ‘Fine, then write down how you do it and get the goddamn Senate to pass it, but don’t whine and tell me not to do anything.’”

That outcome would put Democrats in an awkward position, forcing them to oppose a policy that originated with the White House and that was once widely believed to have strengthened its hand for future budget talks. Following passage of the debt-ceiling bill in August 2011, leading Democrats such as Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) hailed the sequester’s defense cuts, which they predicted would help them exact GOP concessions on taxes. But in 2013, the sequester remains, and Republicans are willing for it to take effect and now see it as helping them exact concessions from Democrats on spending. 

Republicans are fortunate to be in the position they are in, Norquist adds. They could have easily squandered the opportunity by trying to replace, rather than delay, the sequester during the fiscal-cliff negotiations. “Mitch McConnell saved our bacon,” he says. “Nothing good would have come from addressing [sequestration and the fiscal cliff] at the same time. They could have slipped in a tax increase to cover for pieces of it, hidden some awful things inside a big deal.”

Still, not all Republicans are on board with the idea of letting sequestration take effect. “I think there are some members of our conference who are ready to accept sequestration,” says Representative Steve Womack (R., Ark.). “I’m not ready to accept it at this point. I think it would be devastating to our capacity to project power from a defense perspective.”

Representative Tim Huelskamp (R., Kans.) says he supports the sequester as written but doubts that GOP leadership will let it take effect. “Well, they couldn’t accept it two weeks ago,” he says, in reference to the fiscal-cliff agreement. “The folks that voted for that deal in August 2011, you can’t find many of them who agree with what they passed. I’d like to see if they’d support any cuts.”

Sequestration will be widely discussed this week at the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Va. Although many Republicans once vocally opposed the defense cuts, there is a sense among GOP lawmakers that they will fare better in future fights if they stick together on the sequester. “I don’t know how it will all be dealt with,” a GOP insider says. “What unites all these issues is our commitment to cutting spending in Washington.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.