Rumors about a sequester “fix” are rampant, but Senate Republicans doubt that anything — even a bill to exchange the current across-the-board sequester cuts for alternative cuts – can pass in the coming days.
Recently, Senate Republicans have been buzzing about giving the White House flexibility to decide how the automatic spending cuts are applied. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has suggested giving agency heads discretion on how the cuts are enforced. But due to bipartisan reluctance, that option is quickly disappearing.
“I don’t think it will pass,” says Senator Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), when asked about a proposal to give the administration more leeway. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) agrees. He is also skeptical of any such legislation passing. “There’s a lot of passion around this issue of which amendment to vote for, which bill,” he says. “None of them are going to pass.”
Republicans remain unconvinced that President Obama would be interested in any solution that makes the sequester cuts less onerous and also excludes tax hikes. “He’s the one having to make the cuts,” Flake says, expounding on why Senate Democrats and the president aren’t jumping at the chance to exercise control. “These are tough cuts to make. So I think he’d rather blame the Congress.”
Indeed, in a Tuesday speech in Virginia, Obama rejected the floated flexibility proposal. “Now, lately, some people have been saying, well, maybe we’ll just give the president some flexibility,” he said. “He could make the cuts the way he wants and that way it won’t be as damaging.”
“The problem is when you’re cutting $85 billion in seven months, which represents over a 10 percent cut in the defense budget in seven months, there’s no smart way to do that,” he continued. “There’s no smart way to do that. You don’t want to have to choose between, let’s see, do I close funding for the disabled kid, or the poor kid? Do I close this Navy shipyard or some other one?”
Such blatant opposition from Obama decreases further the chance of legislation to provide greater discretion coming to the floor in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Passage of a related bill, an aide to McConnell acknowledges, would be “tough.”
Meanwhile, Republicans anticipate that Democrats will try to make the sequester as politically painful as possible, even as they reject any of the Republicans’ substitution cuts. When asked about the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency’s having preemptively discharged detained immigrants, Corker says he anticipated the Obama administration would “do things that are the most painful.”
“They’re going to do the things that create the most news,” Corker says. “They’re going to do the things that upset the American people most.” That, he adds, was why the White House isn’t embracing the chance to have the flexibility to make different cuts. “If they had that, they’d have to take ownership of those decisions, which they don’t want to do. They’re going to do the things that are most painful.”
Further complicating the GOP’s strategy further is Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s threat that he will only allow the GOP to bring up one sequester alternative to the floor for a vote. Senate Republicans have not yet made an announcement about what their plans would be should Reid keep to his promise.
But Republicans are determined to delay the sequester — it’s just not clear how they’ll do it. Inside the conference, there is widespread frustration over Obama, once again, attempting to hijack a fiscal crisis and turn it into another revenue-raiser. “[Obama] got his big tax increase,” says Senator John Thune (R., S.D.), the Senate Republican conference chairman. “He keeps talking about balance. Well, the fiscal-cliff deal wasn’t balanced. It was all taxes.”
For his part, Flake says that he’d prefer the current sequester to take effect rather than postpone it or “neuter” any of the cuts. “If we can’t get dollar-for-dollar cuts elsewhere, significant cuts, then go forward with the sequester,” he concludes. Since Democrats are unwilling to accept any compromise that doesn’t include revenue, that may well be the end result.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.