Politics & Policy

The Sequester: A Long-Term Win

House Republicans are successfully executing a long-term political and policy strategy.

‘This is not going to be an apocalypse, I think as some people have said,” President Obama told reporters Friday, just hours before authorizing $85 billion in automatic spending reductions via sequestration.

In one fell swoop, Obama completely contradicted what he and practically every senior member of his administration had been saying for months, and revealed something that many might have considered a genuine sign of the apocalypse: House Republicans are successfully executing a long-term political and policy strategy.

For Republicans, the clearest indication that they had won this latest round in the ongoing budget fight was Obama’s acknowledgment that he would sign a continuing resolution to fund the government (the current one expires at the end of March) that included the lower spending levels under sequestration, in addition to the spending caps already in place under the Budget Control Act of 2011. In other words, that he would not risk a government shutdown in an effort to undo the automatic cuts.

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“I think it’s fair to say that I made a deal for a certain budget, certain numbers,” the president said. “There’s no reason why that deal needs to be reopened.”

On Monday, House Republicans made their next move by introducing a six-month continuing resolution that would lock in federal spending at sequestration levels. Key conservative members have signaled their support for the bill, even though it does not include a number of controversial policy riders — such as the defunding of Obamacare — that many have pushed for in the past. GOP leadership hopes to pass the funding resolution later this week.

Republicans say the White House, after badly mismanaging its messaging on sequestration, now has no choice but to accept the lower spending levels, which is a significantly positive outcome for Republicans, both from a political and policy perspective. “It’s a big deal,” says a senior GOP aide. “This was a necessary win for Republicans. It’s not sufficient, but absolutely a necessary win.”

“Americans understand that if the sequester get replaced, it gets replaced with spending cuts, not tax hikes” says another GOP aide. “They’ve resigned themselves to lower spending levels.”

The fight over the sequester was a fight the GOP wanted to have, and a key component of a multi-step political strategy hammered out weeks ago at the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Va. The recent showdown was precipitated by the decision to delay (until May) another confrontation over the debt ceiling (and force the Democratic Senate to pass a budget) in the hope that the politics surrounding sequestration would be more favorable to Republicans. The American people agree with the GOP on spending cuts, one GOP aide explains, but are less thrilled about the prospect of a government shutdown, or defaulting on the national debt. “So far I think sequencing of it all has come out pretty well,” the aide says.

Sequestration was a fight Republicans thought they could win, and they appear to have done so. Representative Tom Price (R., Ga.), a leading member of the conservative working group that helped craft the GOP’s budget strategy, says that securing sequestration-level cuts was “absolutely imperative” for Republicans. “We didn’t think that across-the-board spending reductions were the wisest way to do that, but regardless, we felt that those levels ought to be maintained,” he says. “At this point, things are pretty much on track.” 

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GOP aides are somewhat baffled by the administration’s failed attempt to “scare Republicans into raising taxes” by portraying the sequester as “some sort of doomsday device.” At times, the White House embarrassed itself by promulgating easily refutable claims, a number of which were quickly exposed. Obama advisers also engaged in a frivolous tiff with legendary reporter Bob Woodward over where the idea of sequestration originated (hint: the White House). By the end of it, even the arch-conservatives at Saturday Night Live were mocking the president’s handling of the situation. The awkward saga continues, as evidenced by the following AP report from Monday (emphasis added): 

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says U.S. airports, including Los Angeles International and O’Hare International in Chicago, are already experiencing delays as a result of automatic federal spending cuts.

Both of those big-city airports routinely suffer delays.

“The problem was, on day one when Obama started talking about how bad the sequester was, nobody was disagreeing with him,” a senior House Republican aide says. “We always agreed that there would be programs that were unnecessarily going to be impacted by this. The only way for them to gain ground was to go over the top, and they just boxed themselves into a corner of hysterics, claiming the world was going to end, and then it didn’t.” 

“Look, the sequester is going to have an impact, an adverse effect, that people notice,” says an aide to House leadership. “But by coming right out of the gate with scary statistics and easily disprovable claims, I think they really undercut their credibility.”

As the focus now shifts to upcoming fights — over the continuing resolution, next year’s budget, and the debt ceiling — Republicans think they are about as well-positioned as they could hope to be, given the existing balance of power in Washington. “One of the goals in all of this is to make certain that there is a contrast that the American people appreciate and can see between the solutions that Republicans are putting on the table, and the ideas that Democrats are putting on the table,” Price says. “The role of the minority is to contrast with the other side, and to hold the other side to account.”

House aides say that their decision not to pass, or even attempt to pass, a sequester alternative this year (they already passed two in the previous session) bolstered their position, given that the Democratic Senate was unable to pass its own alternative. “We didn’t feel any pressure at all to keep negotiating against ourselves,” the senior House GOP aide says. “We can’t keep giving them targets to shoot at.” However, when House Republicans introduce and pass their budget for next year, which they say will reach balance within a ten-year window, they will finally have a Democratic alternative to contrast with. And that will be thanks, at least in part, to the same strategic vision outlined at their retreat earlier this year. The only thing House Republicans requested in exchange for delaying a debt-ceiling confrontation earlier this year was a measure that would withhold Senators’ pay if they failed to pass a budget, something Democrats haven’t done in nearly four years. (They swiftly relented.)

Of course, Congressional Republicans’ dismal approval rating is well established, but Obama’s is nothing to write home about either, having recently fallen to 46 percent, down from a post-election high of 56 percent. It is something he needs to be mindful of, especially if he hopes to make any progress on an ambitious second-term agenda. In order to make any headway on budget issues, Republicans say, Obama will need to abandon his habit of negotiating against a caricatured, straw-man version of the GOP position. 

“The White House has been badly served throughout the Obama administration by making assumptions about what Republicans want, rather than actually talking to Republicans and conservatives, and finding out what moves them,” the House leadership aide says. “I don’t know if it’s because they watch too much MSNBC, or what, but they have a habit of telling us what they think we want, and have made some bad assumptions about the principles of conservatism.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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