With sequestration all but certain to kick in Friday, members of Congress will be gauging constituent reaction in coming days and how lawmakers respond may depend largely on the feedback they receive.
“Frankly, it’s a game of political negotiating by feel,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “If the American people don’t notice it, they remain at loggerheads. If they do, this gets resolved.”
Of course, what form that resolution takes is far from set, and there are several scenarios that may unfold. Here is how the policy and politics of the sequester could play out.
Revisit sequestration. If there is an overwhelming outcry of opposition that lights up the phones across the Capitol in Republican and Democratic offices alike, Congress could be forced to make a genuine attempt at bipartisan negotiations to come to a mutually agreeable solution.
In the blustering and finger-pointing over the last few weeks, Republicans and Democrats traded unilateral alternatives that they knew would be dead on arrival in the Senate without any effort to work together. The House did not even attempt any charades, with that chamber's Republicans simply pointing to a pair of sequester bills they passed in the last Congress (making them moot now).
The next obvious point at which lawmakers might revisit sequestration would be when they consider how to keep the federal government funded past March 27, when the current continuing resolution expires. But Congress plans to be adjourned that week, giving them just three weeks to figure out a plan.
If lawmakers determine the across-the-board cuts can’t stick, the next question for both sides to grapple with is whether to try to make them more manageable, substitute them for other cuts, or push them off.
Give the agencies flexibility. There’s a push, mostly by Republicans, to give the impacted agencies and departments more flexibility to manage the cuts — particularly regarding defense and veterans' programs. In the House, the GOP is trying to tie the flexibility to a package with another continuing resolution to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. But the White House and many Democrats have rejected that idea.
Some on Obama’s side, Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, openly worry that such a move would only serve to push the blame for the sequester onto Obama and the Democrats. There could be some movement this direction, if members begin to get desperate. But it’s unclear whether Congress would be willing to cede that much power to the executive branch.
“I would never support that,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told National Journal this week. “That is giving up my total responsibility, which in the Constitution says we determine how funds are spent. You don’t give it to some unelected bureaucrat.”
Create substitute cuts. Lawmakers could opt to substitute the sequester cuts for others that are more practical and palatable. But this would require one side or the other — or both — to move off their established positions.
Republican strategists say they have a hard time seeing Obama dropping tax gains as a requirement for an alternative, and Democratic budget wonks are not expecting Republicans to cave on revenues unless they do so in the context of a larger deal.
Obama has said his previous offers to negotiate a so-called grand bargain, which included ideas like recalculating the inflationary costs of Social Security through “chained CPI,” remain on the table. But at this stage, experts on both sides say they don’t see the ground shifting toward a larger deal in the short term.
Stop the cuts for 2013. If public outrage is strong and lawmakers feel they have to avert sequestration but cannot negotiate a substitute, they could attempt to put off the cuts — at least for the rest of the year.
Stan Collender, a former Democratic aide to the House and Senate Budget committees, said he thinks this is a likely scenario, adding that “the longer it stays in effect the more members of Congress are getting pressure back home.”
“There’s no substantive deficit-reduction alternative that is acceptable, so at that point, canceling it becomes the most likely option for only 2013,” he said. Congress would simply develop some vehicle to delay the cuts for this year.
“The other option is that they don’t do anything, and they just struggle with each other politically for a month or two and then give up and pass some sort of short-term event that does nothing,” said former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H.
Let the sequester stand. If the public reaction is more annoyance than groundswell, if support grows for taking some bold action to harness spending, or if lawmakers make an attempt to tweak the sequester but fail to come to an agreement, the cuts could very well end up staying in place.
Given the lack of bipartisan action in recent months, some experts say that is not an unlikely scenario. After all, when sequestration was devised as part of the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, no one envisioned that the day they took effect would actually come.
This article appears in the March 1, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.