Senate Democrats see no political downside to leaving the issue of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending until after the November elections, as they try to use the cuts as leverage with Republicans to negotiate on tax increases on the wealthy.
“We structured the sequester in a way that would be more comfortable for us than for Republicans,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said, referring to the cuts by their technical name. The cuts, which are set to begin next year, are nearly evenly split between defense and domestic spending but do not affect Democratic priorities, such as Social Security and Medicaid.
“We don’t see the heightened sense of concern as a problem; it could help get Republicans to the negotiating table,” another Senate Democratic aide said. “The sequester could yet fulfill the purpose it was meant to serve.”
Indeed, the sequester, which was part of last August’s debt limit deal, was triggered by the failure of last year’s super committee to reach agreement on a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan. The threat of such harsh cuts was intended to provide an incentive for House and Senate lawmakers to come up with their own comprehensive plan.
But that didn’t happen, and Republicans have been warning that defense contractors are expected to give layoff notices as a result of the sequester sometime before the elections, a scenario that will be ripe for political saber-rattling.
Republicans disagree that there will be no political fallout for Democrats, noting that President Barack Obama’s re-election strategy includes victories in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio — all of which have military bases that could be affected by the sequester.
“Waiting us out is bad governing,” a Senate GOP aide added. “This is why everyone in America is ready to try someone new” as president.
A senior House GOP aide said, “Playing chicken with America’s national security and the economy is phenomenally irresponsible.”
On Friday, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote to Obama decrying the Democratic strategy.
“The sequester will have a significant impact on our national security and other domestic programs — such as medical research and special education — and yet the White House is now holding our troops and other important programs hostage in order to foist tax increases on small businesses, which have been routinely rejected by the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis,” the letter said. “Instead of ignoring the need to address this critical issue, we would respectfully request that you and your senior staff engage constructively with both parties to find common ground.”