The Republican drumbeat this week against “the president’s sequester” ignores some important facts.
It was Republicans, not President Barack Obama, who forced the budget crisis that helped create the pending across-the-board cuts, known as a sequester, in the first place. And it was Republicans who provided crucial votes for the 2011 deal that ended that impasse, an agreement that’s about to trigger $85 billion in automatic spending reductions March 1.
The idea of the sequester did come from the White House two summers ago, as a last-ditch effort to jump-start stalled negotiations. Newly emboldened by their 2010 congressional victories, Republicans took the extraordinary step of demanding big spending cuts as the price for permitting an otherwise routine increase in the government’s debt ceiling, the borrowing authority needed to pay bills already incurred.
Eventually, the debt-reduction package, which aimed to cut trillions from federal spending while providing for a last-minute increase in the debt ceiling, passed on a bipartisan vote.
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In the Senate, 28 Republicans – including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who now pounds away at Obama almost daily over the automatic cuts – voted for the plan. It passed 74-26.
In the House of Representatives, the bill got 174 Republican votes, including those of Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. Sixty-six Republicans voted no. It passed 269-161.
The agreement followed weeks of tortured negotiations between the administration and congressional Republicans as they sought a “grand bargain” to slash the federal debt. Accords, and for that matter civility, proved elusive.
In his book “The Price of Politics,” Bob Woodward described how desperate White House officials came up with the idea of automatic cuts. Such reductions, they figured, would be so extreme that they’d force serious negotiations over alternatives.
Boehner had the same thought. According to Woodward, in an account confirmed by the speaker’s office, Boehner told Republican leaders and “other key members” not to worry about the sequester. It would devastate Democrats’ domestic priorities, he said, so “This is never going to happen.”
A bipartisan supercommittee was charged with finding alternatives by the end of the year. Lawmakers thought that the notion of across-the-board cuts was so frightening that the committee would find options, but it didn’t, leading to the current showdown.
In August 2011, top Republicans had praised the deal during the floor debate.
“The legislation the Senate is about to vote on is just a first step,” McConnell said. “But it is a crucial step toward fiscal sanity.”
Fast forward to February 2013.
“The record is clear that the president and his aides came up with that sequester and they got it, so it’s a little puzzling to see them now try to pass it off like a hot potato,” McConnell said Tuesday.
Wednesday, he lamented how “The president had the chance last night to offer a thoughtful alternative to his sequester, one that could reduce spending in a smarter way . . . but instead we just got gimmicks and tax hikes.”
On the House side, Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state emerged from a meeting of party members Wednesday and cited “March 1, the day that the devastating sequestration cuts – the president’s sequestration cuts – take effect, (yet) we’ve yet to hear a plan from the president.”
Republicans also are pushing the “Obama sequester” as a campaign issue.
“Ami Bera’s continued support of Obama’s sequester is about to hit hardworking middle-class and military families in California,” Andrea Bozek, the communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement about the freshman Democratic congressman.
“By refusing to replace Obama’s sequester, Bera is again walking in lockstep with President Obama’s failed agenda,” she charged.
She didn’t mention that the Republican whom Bera defeated in a very tight race, Republican former Rep. Dan Lungren, voted for the sequester legislation.
Republicans defend the offensive by saying they had little choice but to go along, “Voting for a bill doesn’t mean you support everything in it. The president got something he wanted, and we got $2 trillion in spending cuts,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said. His yes vote “doesn’t mean we support it (the sequester) or that it’s a good idea.”
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel noted that Republican-authored legislation spelling out alternatives passed the Republican-controlled House last year and went nowhere in the Democrat-run Senate.
Senate Democrats are expected to offer their own plan later this week, and it’s expected to die in the House. For all the complaining about the sequester, Republicans are saying privately – and some publicly – that maybe automatic cuts aren’t such a bad thing.
If no reasonable alternative can be reached and the sequester has to go into effect, said veteran Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., “that’s actually the preferred position.”