“The only bottom line that I have is that we have to extend this debt ceiling through the next election, into 2013. And the reason for it is we’ve now seen how difficult it is to get any kind of deal done,” Obama said during a July 22, 2011, news conference.
The sequester plan that Nabors outlined at the Capitol was refined, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden both weighing in. As part of a final, negotiated deal, called the Budget Control Act, there was agreement on $900 billion in spending cuts and the creation of a bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which would negotiate the $1.2 trillion more in cuts. If that so-called super committee failed, or if Congress did not follow through with its recommendation, automatic cuts would begin on Jan. 2, 2013.
Administration officials do not deny that a sequester plan was discussed at the July 25, 2011, meeting between Nabors and Jackson and Loper. But they say that was not the first time the discussion of such an enforcement mechanism—a la Gramm-Rudman-Hollings—had been brought up in various negotiations, dating from bipartisan talks with House and Senate members led by Biden earlier in the year. “It was always in the air,” a senior White House aide told National Journal.
In fact, there is some outside evidence that this is true, beyond the fact House Republicans had passed a bill only six days earlier containing its own sequester back-up plan. News accounts of even earlier talks involving congressional leaders and Obama at the White House mention the notion of a deal involving “triggers” that would force Congress to follow through with agreed cuts.
Democrats also note that even a plan offered by McConnell which would have given the president authority to raise the ceiling in several steps would, by its own nature, have had to also involve a kind of trigger mechanism. Under McConnell’s plan, the president would have been granted the authority to raise the ceiling to the full amount requested by the White House in two subsequent tranches, both of which could be blocked through congressional resolutions of disapproval that required a two-thirds majority. That gave the White House the opportunity to raise the debt ceiling while also giving Republicans a chance to vote against it.
But there was a part missing in that equation: How do you ensure that $1.2 trillion would be cut? According to one senior Senate Democratic aide, “That’s where the sequester came in, but it was a pretty obvious solution since there needed to be some kind of enforceable mechanism if Republicans were going to go along with the McConnell plan. They [Republicans] would not accept a plan where they voted against the second tranches of the ceiling, but were left with no guarantee that the cuts would actually happen.”
The aide said that is what Democrats mean when they argue that the sequester came about at the Republicans’ behest. “We obviously would have been OK with just the $900 billion in cuts, and some kind of an agreement to seek more. But because Republicans demanded dollar-for-dollar, we were forced to find a way to get from $900 billion to $2 trillion. It is really ridiculous for them to try to wriggle out now. If they had not insisted on dollar-for-dollar or had been open to revenues, the sequester would not exist.”
Van Hollen also noted that an offer had been made to have revenues, such as closing special-interest tax loopholes, incorporated into the plan instead. But he said that Republicans dismissed that, and that they are the ones who decided to leave the defense cuts in the plan. Those military cuts are the ones House Republicans now spew the most anger about, and they have even since passed once-chamber legislation to soften them through deeper cuts to social and safety-net programs.
All the while, Democrats reiterated that the final deal—ultimately supported by majorities in both chambers—was later depicted by Boehner as “98 percent of what I wanted.”
But a senior GOP congressional aide has told National Journal it is simply not fair to refer to that remark by Boehner without also noting the context in which it was made—that is, that it was made months before the super committee failed, and after what the aide said had been personal commitments to Boehner from Reid and Obama that the panel would get its work done.
Based on those assurances, the aide said, Boehner truly felt that the Budget Control Act would result in the $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending caps and a package of entitlement and tax reforms that were being promised, and so he went along with the agreement, including its sequester trigger. “Obviously, the second part didn’t happen,” the aide said.