“They Just Jumped the Sharquester”

That memorable phrase Is the contribution of John Hart, a spokesman for Conservative Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), and was made in response to the White House’s report that it will discontinue spring tours due to the forced spending cuts of sequestration.  This phrase is perhaps the pithiest manifestation of Congressional Republicans’ talking points over the spending cuts, the most-common form of which is “crying wolf.”  So far, the public essentially agrees.

So, the forced spending cuts of the sequester have officially begun, and the sting hasn’t been felt yet.  That was always a possibility–exact budget authority is a bit of an abstraction, since it’s the money that various Federal Departments and Agencies are allowed to spend, rather than how much money is actually spent and what it is spent on.  In coming weeks we will probably get a clearer grasp of where the money won’t be going and who will be most-affected by it, and then perhaps our preliminary picture will change.  For the time being, though, President Obama’s grim portents of the budget cuts of the sequester look like bluster.

This was the concern that I raised in my last entry, at which point I’d concluded that President Obama was gambling too much on setting-up Republicans to take the blame for allowing the forced spending cuts to happen.  Since the State of the Union Address I’ve suspected the President was priming the public for the sequester to happen; in recent weeks Congressional Republicans deftly parried this attack by offering the President the power to modify spending levels within affected Departments or agencies so that spending on priorities could be left intact.  When the President and Senate Democrats refused to entertain the offer, the focus shifted to why.  It didn’t help that the Senate Democrats’ proposal to replace the cuts to domestic spending in the sequester was obviously designed to be unacceptable to Republicans.  The bill would have instituted a 30% minimum tax on millionaires, elimination of all farm subsidies, and left the deep cuts to Defense spending in place, in exchange for restoring all other cuts to domestic discretionary spending.  It failed on a filibuster, 51-49–irrelevant, since it wouldn’t have had a prayer in the House.

Congressional Republicans, surprisingly, comported themselves with perspective and discipline throughout all of this.  Indicating early on that the forced budget cuts of the sequester were likely to go into effect, several Congressional Republican leaders said that “President Obama already got his revenues,” and that the sequester could only be modified in the context of a farther-reaching deal to reduce future Federal spending.  Congressional Republican leaders then allowed a successful vote to raise the debt limit for 3 months, though many Republicans voted–without fanfare–against it.  As I already mentioned, when President Obama said these spending cuts were unacceptably blunt-edged, they offered to give him the power to shift budget authority from 1 part of an affected office to another to shore-up priority spending at the expense of less-essential programs.  Now the House of Representatives, mostly through the House Republican Conference, has voted for a continuing resolution to maintain Federal discretionary spending at the level permitted by the sequester through September 30th–the balance of this fiscal year.  So far, Congressional Republicans are keeping to the strategy I had thought leadership media statements in January had suggested: Avoid direct confrontations with President Obama (who is now a 2-termer and personally popular), bend on his other legislative priorities, and focus relentlessly on their supposedly-urgent message of cutting Federal spending.

To the President’s credit, he seems to have recognized that his effort to force Republicans to choose between capitulation and public embarrassment over the sequester has failed, at least for now.  On Tuesday he pivoted to outreach, calling several Republican Senators to discuss Federal fiscal policy and inviting 8 of them to a White House dinner that night to discuss the outline of a “grand bargain” to replace some of the cuts to domestic discretionary spending with a combination of tax loophole closures and long-term benefits reductions to Social Security and Medicare.  Several Republican Senators who were party to these discussions are cautiously optimistic.

So the House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution maintaining Federal discretionary spending levels at roughly the cap set by the sequester through September 30th, the end of this fiscal year.  The measure passed the House 267-151, with 214 Republicans and 53 Democrats voting for it.  It’s unsurprising that most House Democrats voted against the lower spending levels of the continuing resolution (as they had also proposed to raise certain taxes in order to restore some spending); it’s also noteworthy, however, that even with a slightly-reduced attendance the House Republican Conference almost needed Democratic votes in order to pass it due to 14 Republican holdouts from the right and 4 non-attendees.

But while support from Conservative and centrist Democrats in the House may be a coveted goal if the House Republican leadership want to pass viable bills in their chamber, the fact remains that President Obama and Senate Democrats correspondingly have little choice but to support reduced Federal spending for now.  They could win some modifications in spending levels for particular domestic program priorities as long as overall spending levels remain within the limits mandated by the sequester, but that’s no more than what Republicans offered them before the sequester took effect.  Now, Senate Democrats are preparing their own continuing resolution.

In other words, Congressional Republicans won the staring match over the sequester.  True, the full effects of Federal program cuts may not be felt for a few weeks or a few months, and at that point public sentiment may shift more-emphatically against further spending cuts.  But in the meantime President Obama and the Democrats will have had the opportunity to shore-up some of their own budgetary priorities at the expense of programs they consider less-essential.  So, some hurtful cuts may never really go into effect, and other programs may be eliminated outright.  After many losses in years of fights over government with President Obama, the Republicans won this one.

This win is significant, because President Obama has been playing to take the House in 2014, and the public seems to be skeptical of his claim that House Republicans are on the warpath.  If they can otherwise keep their focus on Federal spending, their unassuming passivity may work for them.


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