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.
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.