Democrats Re-Center Fiscal Cliff Debate: It’s About More Than Defense Cuts

Roll Call Photos

The shadowboxing between the parties over avoiding the fiscal cliff has so far been marked by Republicans introducing and passing legislation to avoid it. They’ve proposed replacing one-year’s worth of cuts to the defense department with cuts over 10 years to food stamps and other safety net program. And in short order, they’ll pass legislation extending all of the Bush tax cuts.

Faced with a filibuster, Senate Democrats have been less proactive. But a move by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) — a member of the Democratic leadership — is intended to widen the scope of the debate, so it’s not just centered on the GOP’s pet issues.

Murray is proposing an amendment requiring the administration to report on how the automatic spending cuts set to kick in will affect all facets of government, from defense to social programs. It serves as a competitor and counterweight to a different amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that would require an Office of Management and Budget audit of looming defense cuts alone.

The Senate will vote on the McCain and Murray amendments Wednesday.“As we continue working toward a balanced and bipartisan replacement to the automatic cuts that both Democrats and Republicans agree are bad policy, my amendment will make sure Congress understands exactly how the Administration would enact sequestration if we can’t come to a deal,” Murray said in a statement. “My amendment calls for an examination of all of the automatic cuts, not just one piece of them. Sequestration would slash across a broad swath of our federal budget — from the Pentagon, to our border security, to education funding, and to the support middle class families and the most vulnerable Americans depend on in this tough economy.”

Sequestration is the technical term for the enforcement mechanism members of Congress and the White House created during the debt limit fight to force legislators to pass a significant deficit reduction bill. So far Congress has failed to do so, and unless they do before the end of the year, scores of federal programs will face arbitrary budget cuts, starting in 2013.

Democrats insist the sequester must stand until Republicans drop their anti-tax absolutism and work with Democrats on a balanced fiscal package that includes tax increases. Republicans insist that taxes are off the table, and want to unwind the sequester and replace it with other cuts to domestic programs only — while extending all of the Bush tax cuts.

The GOP has the advantage of controlling the House and thus of being able to pass legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff. And by focusing on protecting defense and high-income tax cuts, their particular plan has powerful backers. Dems are now collecting supporters for their own approach.

In letters to senators, health and education advocacy groups are pressing elected officials to widen their inquiries, so that potential harm domestic programs and jobs aren’t left out of the calculation when Congress determines how to avoid the fiscal cliff.

“Senator McCain’s amendment would require a detailed report solely for defense programs,” writes National PTA president Betsy Landers. “PTA believes it is absolutely critical that both Congress and the public have access to information on the impact of sequestration as it relates to all programs — especially those that will directly and immediately impact services to children and families.”

In a similar letter, the education association coalition Committee for Education Funding urged members to vote for Murray’s plan and against McCain’s. “We urge your support for the Murray amendment, as opposed to Senator McCain’s amendment … which requires such a sequester report solely for defense programs. It is critical that both Congress and the public have information about the impact of sequestration on all parts of the budget, not just defense. We believe education programs are an important component of our national and economic security.”

The goal here is to illustrate that the entire sequester must ultimately be replaced, and not simply by imposing cuts on domestic programs. It’s also to put Republicans, de facto, on the record expressing concern for issues and interest groups outside their coalition.