Sequester cuts a time bomb for GOP?
By DARREN SAMUELSOHN
2/8/13 4:42 AM EST
Republicans open to letting billions in sequester cuts go through figure they can blame the president if the economy goes south.
But Democrats are betting they can shift that blame right back to the GOP.
They’re so confident, in fact, that they’re already eyeing at least 10 Republican-held seats with strong military connections from Florida to California to target in 2014, after sequester cuts have trickled down to local bases where jobs are lost and voters notice.
“Republicans who are unwilling to compromise, unwilling to find solutions and are responsible for cuts to defense and jobs in their districts are going to find an unwelcome reception from voters,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Republicans can't say they weren't warned: The Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday that sequestration could cost 1 million jobs and send the country into another recession.
If anyone should know about sequestration politics, it’d be the Republicans.
Mitt Romney warned about the devastating job losses from sequestration as he toured 2012 battleground states. But the campaign last year revolved around theoretical spending cuts.
Say sequestration kicks in on March 1: then lawmakers are suddenly in a much different place, reacting to very real reductions in government services the public relies on, as well as a rippling of layoffs in the private sector.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner both said this week they’d like to avoid sequestration, but they are worlds apart in how to address it and have shown no signs that negotiations will resume to end it. Proposals bouncing around Capitol Hill to delay the cuts have yet to build a critical majority and House and Senate leaders are still gaming out whether votes will come up on any of them.
Meanwhile, key Republicans have been speaking openly for weeks about their willingness to let sequestration take effect, regardless of the political risk they’d face at the ballot box in 2014.
“I’m a lot more concerned about trillion-dollar deficits every year stretching to infinity,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who also added, “That’s obviously a more indirect issue to somebody who’s about to lose their job or has lost their job, and I respect that 100 percent.”
Several polls released since last November’s election show Republicans would get the bulk of the blame if the so-called “fiscal cliff” hits, whether it be tax hikes that nearly hit on New Year's Day or the threat of a government default absent a raise in borrowing authority. If sequestration happens, House Democrats say they’ll have tangible proof that the GOP is a dysfunctional party that can’t even tie its own shoelaces on something as essential to its long-standing tradition as the Pentagon budget.
The DCCC is circulating a list of Republican members who represent districts where defense and domestic cuts could cause lasting damage and help turn the seats from red to blue, or at least force the GOP to spend money it didn’t plan on spending.
A top target is two-term Rep. Scott Rigell, whose Hampton Roads, Va., district is home to the world’s largest naval base and a defense contracting community so big it’s known as “Pentagon South.”
Other high-profile defense advocates whom Democrats see as beatable because of sequestration are House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (Calif.) and Rep. Bill Young, a 22-term Floridian who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of the Pentagon’s purse strings. They also are eyeing members with military bases or defense contractors in their backyards, including Reps. Andy Barr (Ky.), Dan Benishek (Mich.), John Fleming (La.), Mick Mulvaney (S.C.), Steve Pearce (N.M.), Tom Reed (N.Y.), Steve Southerland (Fla.) and David Valadao (Calif.).
Even if the targeted GOP members work to stop the cuts and cast votes to stop them from going into effect, Democrats say the Republicans’ electoral prospects could still be dragged down if enough conservatives win on forcing sequestration to happen anyway.
“If they continue with the extremism that they’ve engaged in and continue to hold our economy hostage and refuse to work with Democrats and the president to try to make sure we can move our economy forward and get the economy kicked into a higher gear, yes, I absolutely think they will suffer politically, as I think they did quite frankly in the last election,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Speaking Thursday at the House Democrats’ retreat in Lansdowne, Va., Obama challenged Republicans to come up with a compromise that turns off the automatic spending cuts while looking ahead to the next political season.
“They recognize that the sequester is a bad idea, but what they’ve suggested is that the only way to replace it now is for us to cut Social Security, cut Medicare, and not close a single loophole, not raise any additional revenue from the wealthiest Americans or corporations who have a lot of lawyers and accountants who are able to maneuver and manage and work and game the system," Obama said. "I have to tell you, if that's an argument they want to have before the court of public opinion, that is an argument I'm more than willing to engage in.”
Democrats also said sequestration would pose problems for Republicans if it started March 1 but got retroactively fixed through legislation — a strategy some in the GOP say may be their best option — because of the uncertainty in front of defense contractors.
“Even if it’s undone, they will pay a political price,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
Several Republicans acknowledged the political predicament that incumbents are in come 2014.
“Balancing budgets in the abstract is very politically popular, but when you specifically vote on specific cuts to programs that your constituents want, there’s a price to be paid for that,” said Matt Schlapp, the former political director of George W. Bush’s White House.
Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) said he’s safe next year because he didn’t vote for sequestration in the first place. But the second-term congressman noted the cuts — if they happen — also don’t bode well for his constituents.
“It’s awful,” he said. “What about active-duty military? What about Medicare? What about doctors? It’s not the right way to do business and it’s not the right scenario.”
Young, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairman and longest-serving current House Republican, said there could be some political blowback for incumbents who have been trying to stop sequestration.
“That could be the case, but that’s not my concern. My main concern is what it does to the readiness of my country,” he told POLITICO.
Rigell, an Armed Services Committee member and among the top House recipients last cycle of defense industry campaign contributions, said he’s been “making every effort to avert or mitigate” the effects of sequestration in his district. Come 2014, he said he’ll win another term thanks to his record.
“While not minimizing this, I am saying that a member can surely navigate through it if they led well,” Rigell told POLITICO.
Schlapp said sequestration politics “are definitely tricky when it comes to communities that’ll receive less military funding.”
But he said it shouldn’t be all bad news for members considering the next election cycle should have larger economic undercurrents.
“We’re going into uncharted waters, where actually there’s an upside politically to members who say, ‘Yes I voted for cuts, including ones that helped my district,’” he said. “If there was ever a time to make that argument, 2014 has to be the best time to make it in my lifetime.”
Several Republicans said spending cuts should resonate with their voters.
“Too often, some in Washington underestimate the knowledge base of the voters,” Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told POLITICO. “And from a Republican perspective, it’s a base that believes much more needs to be done to reduce the size and scope of the federal government because we can’t continue to borrow 43 cents on the dollar and survive.”
If voters are looking to pin the blame on anyone, several Republicans said Obama and the Senate Democrats should face the consequences for not agreeing to legislation passed by the House that could have already turned sequestration off.
“If you’re looking for somebody who will take it hard, I think it’s the president, because he said during the campaign, ‘Nah, it’s not going to happen,’” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said.
Jim Dyer, a Republican who was House Appropriations Committee staff director, said incumbents in both parties could be at risk come 2014 if they can't stop the spending cuts.
“I think the problem you have is there’s no good way to spin this stuff,” he said. “This is not a spin-able story. This is just something that could be fixed, should be fixed. Everybody knows it, but they aren’t doing it. And that’s a pain in the ass.”