Congressional Republicans are considering a proposal that would give the Obama administration authority to choose what gets the axe under the automatic spending cuts required by sequestration. The measure is intended to negate the “across-the-board” nature of sequestration while still maintaining the size of the spending cuts, sources said.
“Those conversations are happening and they’re happening at a leadership level,” a Senate source told The Washington Examiner. “The bill would not try to replace the cuts, [but] it would instead give the president maximum authority to prioritize.”
Such legislation would address Obama’s complaint earlier this week, that sequestration takes a “meat cleaver” approach to spending, without yielding to his demand for more tax increases. It might also pressure him to start with cuts that do not have an immediate impact on military readiness — for example, the clean energy program that has the Navy paying $16 per gallon for biofuels.
“Now, if Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness,” Obama said in a speech on the sequester this week. “And already, the threat of these cuts has forced the Navy to delay an aircraft carrier that was supposed to deploy to the Persian Gulf. And as our military leaders have made clear, changes like this — not well thought through, not phased in properly — changes like this affect our ability to respond to threats in unstable parts of the world. So these cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy.”
House Republicans have already passed two bills that would replace the sequester with other spending cuts, but President Obama has denounced both and Senate Democrats have refused to bring them to a vote. Obama is demanding a bill that replaces half of the sequester’s spending cuts with new revenue from tax increases.
“It’s a strength of this bill that it does not seek to replace the level of these cuts or stretch them out over a ten-year period,” the Senate aide explained. Sequestration requires an $85 billion cut this year (2.4 percent of the federal budget) and $1.2 trillion over ten years, with half that amount coming from the Pentagon.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough conceded on Sunday that “it’s not impossible” to make cuts of that size in a responsible way, but on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney emphasized that it could not be done as the sequestration law is written.
“There is no way to do this — $85 billion over that short window of time — there is no way if you follow the law written by Congress, that implementation of these cuts would not have the draconian, drastic effects that the President talked about today, and that everybody who has written about this has talked about, or everybody who has spoken about this has made clear will happen,” Carney said.
The liberal Center for American Progress wrote approvingly in a November report about a change to the law such as the one Republicans are now contemplating. “(The) amount of cuts to the Pentagon budget mandated by both parts of the debt deal is readily achievable with no sacrifice to our security,” the report said, “if the cuts are done in a thoughtful manner over the next decade.”
House Republicans are less comfortable with the idea, although they also don’t want the defense cuts as written to be implemented. “We don’t want to cede any type of authority to the administration in terms of how the sequester is applied,” said one GOP aide familiar with leadership conversations. “The authority to re-work the cuts on the defense side — that’s something that’s going to stick with the appropriations committee . . . There’s no precedent [to make us think] that he’s going to do it responsibly.” The aide emphasized that a decision has not been made and that House Republicans are debating alternative proposals.
But the cuts as scheduled may be worse than anything Obama would do. And if Obama used this newfound authority to protect expensive pet projects, Republicans could “then pin any wasteful defense spending program on him,” the Senate source said. On the other hand, there would be a tradeoff, as Obama would receive credit for making subsequent budget cuts. Lawmakers might also see the cuts fall on defense programs in their states and districts.