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Byron York: While Obama postures, GOP offers ways to fine-tune sequester

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In addition to his latest "pivot" to jobs and the economy, President Obama will use the State of the Union address to ratchet up pressure on Republicans to surrender on $1.2 trillion in so-called sequestration spending cuts scheduled to take effect March 1.

"This doesn't have to happen," the president said during an appearance in the White House briefing room last week. "I still believe that we can finish the job with a balanced mix of spending cuts and more tax reform."

Obama is right on one thing: Sequestration, as he originally conceived of it and signed it into law in 2011, does not have to happen. Congress could change it at any time. As a matter of fact, what many people do not know is that the House has already voted, on at least two occasions, to get rid of the sequester and replace it with cuts that are not across-the-board, do not disproportionately affect defense spending and more directly address the fastest-growing parts of the deficit.

In May of last year, the House passed the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act of 2012, which would have replaced the sequester's cut-everything approach to discretionary spending with cuts mostly to the entitlement expenditures that threaten to explode future deficits. Last December, the House also passed the Spending Reduction Act of 2012, which would have done much the same thing.

"Our goal would be to replace the sequester with the kind of cuts and reforms that will put us on the path to balancing the budget," says a senior House GOP aide. "That means cuts and reforms to the mandatory programs that are driving our long-term debt problem, rather than discretionary spending."

Neither bill went anywhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Obama threatened to veto them if they had.

So what would the president do? While Obama has talked about a "balanced" approach to deficit reduction, including "tax reform" -- by which he means higher taxes -- he hasn't come up with an actual plan. The White House claims that the president has proposed sequester fixes on three separate occasions. But those were all just suggestions. The fact is, Obama and his Democratic allies who control the Senate have not proposed and passed a bill that would fix the sequester.

"If the president has a plan to replace the sequester, why did the Democrat-run Senate never pass it?" asks a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

Meanwhile, the GOP appears more and more prepared to keep the sequester as it currently stands. "Republicans really, really believe that this is ground they can fight on," says a senior Senate GOP aide. "Leadership is very dug in on this. They view it as the mirror image of the 'fiscal cliff.' In that case, if we did nothing, the president got tax hikes. In this case, if we do nothing, we get spending cuts."

For the GOP, the chief virtue of the sequester is that it is already law. Any reopening of the law, they believe, would inevitably result in a retreat from real cuts in federal spending.

Yes, the sequester burden falls disproportionately on defense. But it is seldom pointed out that the sequester law itself anticipated that problem by giving the president and the secretary of defense the authority to exempt some military spending, like troop levels, from cuts. "The Department would be able to shift funds to ensure war fighting and critical military readiness capabilities were not degraded," noted a report from the Office of Management and Budget. That's not the best way to do things, but it's not the disaster some sequestration critics have charged.

So look for Republicans to hold their ground no matter what Obama says in the State of the Union. They know there will be a big fight ahead. "If sequestration starts, the president and Democrats will exaggerate its ill effects and blame any economic difficulties on sequestration," says another Senate aide. But they are convinced that real cuts in hand are better than anything Obama or congressional Democrats promise in some future deal.

In the meantime, there is still the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act. It's been passed by the House and could be taken up by the Senate at any time. "It is still a good solution," says another House GOP aide. "House Republicans are the only ones that have been working for the past year to avoid the sequester."

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner