Pre­serv­ing se­questers bright spot for GOP in bud­get ne­go­ti­a­tions

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

The fi­nal debt and spend­ing agree­ment hadn’t even been writ­ten Wed­nes­day and Sen. Mitch McCon­nell, the Repub­li­cans’ leader, was al­ready draw­ing a red line around the next fight: bud­get se­questers.

The Ken­tucky Repub­li­can ac­knowl­edged the deal he had ne­go­ti­ated with Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid wasn’t a par­tic­u­larly good bar­gain for Repub­li­cans, but he said it had one bright spot in that it didn’t break the se­questers — the au­to­matic spend­ing cuts Congress and Pres­i­dent Obama agreed to in 2011 that have helped cut over­all fed­eral spend­ing the past two years.

“That’s been a top pri­or­ity for me and my Repub­li­can col­leagues through­out this de­bate. And it’s been worth the ef­fort,” Mr. McCon­nell said. “Pre­serv­ing this law is crit­i­cally im­por­tant.”

For their part, Democrats were also gear­ing up for the fight, hop­ing to erase all or most of the se­questers and re­place them with tax in­creases. Repub­li­cans will de­mand that any changes come from other spend­ing cuts.

The bat­tle­ground will be a HouseSe­nate con­fer­ence com­mit­tee charged with ham­mer­ing out a fi­nal 2014 bud­get. Go­ing to con­fer­ence is part of the deal Mr. Reid and Mr. McCon­nell struck.

The lack of a bud­get is part of the rea­son the gov­ern­ment shut down in the first place. The Se­nate passed a bud­get that called for dis­cre­tionary spend­ing lev­els $90 bil­lion above the House’s lev­els, and the two sides be­gan writ­ing their in­di­vid­ual spend­ing bills at those dif­fer­ent lev­els.

It soon be­came clear, how­ever, that nei­ther cham­ber was go­ing to be able to live up to its bud­get, and that left the gov­ern­ment with­out any spend­ing bills on Oct. 1, lead­ing to the shut­down.

Now, both sides are al­ready draw­ing lines.

Sen. Bernard San­ders, a Vermont in­de­pen­dent who cau­cuses with Democrats, said he will fight any ef­fort to cut so­cial safety-net pro­grams.

“At a time when the mid­dle class in Amer­ica is dis­ap­pear­ing and wealth and in­come in­equal­ity is greater than at any time since the Roar­ing ’20s, we must not bal­ance the bud­get on the backs of the weak and the vul­ner­a­ble,” he said.

The se­questers loomed over the en­tire debt and spend­ing fights of the last few weeks.

In­deed, not only does the fi­nal deal force a bud­get con­fer­ence, but it also ends stop­gap spend­ing Jan. 15 — the date the next round of se­questers is set to kick in.

Repub­li­cans had wanted a six-month spend­ing bill, which would have locked se­questers in for most of the year, but Democrats pro­posed a six-week spend­ing bill, hop­ing to re­visit the se­questers as soon as pos­si­ble.

In the end, they com­pro­mised on the Jan­uary date, which doesn’t lock the se­questers in but brings the gov­ern­ment right to the brink.

The GOP is ea­ger to move on to that con­ver­sa­tion.

“That’s a fight on our turf — it’s great,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, an Ari­zona Repub­li­can who has been one of the chief spend­ing­cut­ters dur­ing his decade in Congress.

He said he thinks Repub­li­cans will hold firm on re­quir­ing the gov­ern­ment to live with the lower spend­ing lev­els, though he said they are open to al­low­ing cuts to en­ti­tle­ment spend­ing such as Medi­care, Med­i­caid and So­cial Se­cu­rity to take the place of the dis­cre­tionary spend­ing se­questers.

The big ques­tion is how Repub­li­cans will feel about the se­quester cuts to de­fense — an is­sue that trou­bles some in both par­ties.

“Hope­fully the Bud­get Com­mit­tee can achieve an agree­ment in con­fer­ence com­mit­tee that will avoid that se­quester,” Sen. Bill Nel­son, Florida Demo­crat, said on the cham­ber floor.

Then there’s the chance that the bud­get con­fer­ence com­mit­tee could de­volve into the same stale­mate that dead­locked the so-called deficit su­per­com­mit­tee in 2011.

Democrats on that com­mit­tee pro­posed ma­jor tax in­creases, while Repub­li­cans pro­posed slight tax in­creases with big­ger spend­ing cuts — and nei­ther side showed any give.

“It’s right to be skep­ti­cal,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, Vir­ginia Demo­crat and mem­ber of the Bud­get Com­mit­tee. “My hope is peo­ple will be chas­tened by the se­vere pain caused by the shut­down and the un­cer­tainty of de­fault.”

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