Democrats Come Up Short In Sequestration Standoff

March 20, 2013 1:55 a.m.

It’s been nearly three weeks since President Obama issued the sequestration order. Across the country, newspapers carry reports of furloughs, airport closings, children kicked out of Head Start. The consequences are beginning to snowball. But lawmakers have reacted to the bad news with a collective shrug.

In the same week Congress is expected to pass government funding legislation that effectively locks in sequestration until the end of September, an unexpected reality is dawning on Washington: as bad as sequestration is, and was intended to be, it’s not bad enough to do what it was designed to do.

That’s left Democrats resigned to malfunctioning and underfunded government in perpetuity, and Republicans confident they can weather the coming months and turn sequestration spending levels into a new normal.“A decision was made by Republicans not to entertain the idea of a temporary delay in the sequester deadline that would have been purchased with a balanced plan much as had been at the end of 2012,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “We would obviously welcome a change of heart by Republicans, but there’s no indication from Republicans that such a change of heart is forthcoming.”

Once the sequestration deadline came and went, President Obama settled in for a long, glacial campaign to persuade individual Republicans to support the sort of deficit reduction he’s been pursuing for two years. But even if that effort ultimately works, it for all intents and purposes is unfolding on its own, delinked from the ongoing sequestration cuts, which were supposed to be the forcing mechanism that scared Republicans straight about the need to increase taxes.

Instead, sequestration will continue for at least as long as it takes lawmakers and Obama to reach a budget agreement — if such an agreement is possible.

“[T]he timeline for that, obviously, is a little prolonged because it involves regular order and the budget process underway in the Congress, in both the House and the Senate, as well as the conversations and meetings that the President has been having with lawmakers, and that lawmakers have been having among themselves,” Carney said. “So it certainly looks as though the sequester will remain imposed for some time unless Republicans have a change of heart about the decision to impose it.”

Obama didn’t want to end up gambling on the good will of rank and file Republicans to remove sequestration.

But since it’s become clear that GOP leaders would rather pocket sequestration’s spending cuts — however suboptimal — than pony up any new tax increases, the parties’ affects have changed significantly.

Democrats, following the White House’s lead, decided not to roll the fight over turning off sequestration into the separate but related fight over avoiding a government shutdown. Instead, Senate appropriators used the process to protect whatever categories of domestic spending Republicans would allow from the worst consequences of sequestration — a tacit admission that sequestration isn’t going to break the GOP’s anti-tax absolutism anytime soon.

Republicans, by contrast, have become emboldened. On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner signaled that Republicans will not only set future appropriations at sequestration levels, but that they’d attempt to take even more money out of domestic programs and use it to increase national defense — the only category of spending they’ve attempted to shield from dramatic budget cuts.

That fight is still several months away. And there are plenty of reasons to think Boehner’s tough talk will give way to pragmatism, when Democrats object to providing defense spending with special treatment. But it’s clear Republican leaders would prefer to see sequestration spending levels become the new normal than to agree to another tax increase.

Election politics and economic news in the coming months will complicate each party’s strategy, as well. If the economy continues to improve despite sequestration, it will ironically hamper Democratic efforts to use the indiscriminate cuts as leverage to force Republicans into a balanced budget deal. After all, what incentive will Democratic incumbents have to focus on the gloomy reality of perpetual sequestration when there’s an improving economy to run on? And how will Democratic leaders be able to persuade Republicans to accept higher taxes as part of a sequestration replacement plan if the economic havoc sequestration was supposed to create never materializes?

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