President Obama has been barnstorming across the country warning that if automatic, across-the-board spending cuts are allowed to take effect Friday, economic calamity would not be far behind.
Back on Capitol Hill, House Republicans are planning to wait out the president’s predictions long enough to see if he turns out to be a soothsayer or Chicken Little.
If he proves prescient and people starting losing their jobs, airport security lines stretch for hours, and the sequester’s impacts are real and immediate, Republicans lose leverage. But, if the sky doesn’t fall, Republicans will strengthen their position, senior House Republican leadership aides tell National Journal Daily.
And, they argue, both outcomes would be useful.
“If the sky actually falls and s--- goes to hell in a handbasket, then it’s a useful tool to negotiate with Republican members,” said a senior GOP leadership aide. “And if the sky does not fall, then the administration looks pretty stupid, so they lose a lot of credibility.”
If the sequester sets off a market panic and a public backlash, House Republican leaders will be forced to the negotiating table. But many Republicans think a crisis would also soften conservative intransigence toward cutting a deal. Obama understands this and that is why he is trying to bring the pressure of the presidential pulpit to bear on lawmakers.
But if the spending reductions don’t spark a panic, Republicans will take the fight over undoing the cuts into the coming debate over raising the government’s debt limit. Republicans have always believed that the debt-ceiling debate gives them the most advantageous playing field to push for targeted spending cuts.
The debt limit kicks in again on May 18 and the administration would be able to use so-called extraordinary measures to pay the bills until about August, setting up a summer showdown reminiscent of the 2011 debt-ceiling fight. The GOP strategy would be to bring Obama to the table to talk about cutting entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, which has always been the GOP’s top priority.
Ultimately, Republicans are betting that sequestration won’t send the economy into a tailspin.
“If nothing happens in two weeks, three weeks, then we’re in good shape. The longer the sky doesn’t fall, per se, the stronger our position becomes,” a senior GOP leadership aide said.
The House is planning to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government through September that would lock in the lower spending levels. That vote is scheduled for late next week, according to an aide.
Republicans will meet Wednesday to decide whether to include defense, veterans’ affairs, and military-construction appropriations in their CR. The conference is leaning toward including the measures, senior aides say, because it gives the military flexibility to deal with the sequestration cuts and still start new projects.
The move would help allay some of the fears of defense hawks, who worry that the deep cuts will weaken the nation’s military. It would also give Republicans a rhetorical weapon with which to strike back against Senate Democrats, forcing them to either accept the flexibility or strip it and explain why, if the cuts are as dangerous as Obama has made them out to be, they are unwilling to provide the military with some relief.
Still, House Republicans acknowledge that so far they are losing the public-relations war. The White House’s state-by-state breakdown of the sequester’s effects, which includes potential job losses, has spooked some lawmakers. Republican leaders have been busy arguing that the White House is playing games with people’s jobs, according to a senior House leadership aide.
“We’re trying to get our guys to hold strong,” the aide said. “It’s not going to be as bad as the White House is making it out to be.”
The next few weeks will tell if they’re right.
This article appears in the Feb. 27, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Sequestration Has Become Game of Chicken.