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Roll Call

Dick Cheney Stirs Sequestration Pot on the Hill

Urging Congress to Avoid Defense Cuts, Former VP Elicits Strong Reactions on Both Sides of Aisle

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Former Vice President Dick Cheney leaves the weekly Senate policy luncheons Tuesday with Sen. John Barrasso (left). Senate Republicans praised the former Defense secretary, saying he is welcome anytime and is an obvious expert on the effects of cuts to the Pentagon budget.

When Dick Cheney talks, people listen.

The former vice president went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to fire up Congressional Republicans to fight mandatory cuts to the Defense Department budget. Across the Dome, both sides of the aisle were waiting for him, whether it be with reverence, snark or practiced indifference.

Cheney spoke first to Senate Republicans at their weekly policy lunch, with most of them saying the former Defense secretary was welcome anytime and is an obvious expert on the effects of cuts to the Pentagon budget.

“He was probably one of the more successful secretaries of Defense in the history of this country,” Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said as he entered the meeting. “Everyone acknowledges the great job he did when he was secretary of Defense, so I think he is clearly qualified to discuss the issue.”

As Defense secretary, Cheney formulated plans to cut defense spending by 30 percent in the 1990s.

Sen. Lindsey Graham is pushing for a plan to replace one year of the 10-year sequester to give Congress time to “do the big deal,” a bipartisan plan to cut the deficit that includes revenue and spending cuts.

“I am glad he’s here and I hope he will help make the case that I am trying to make: that sequestration is really an ill-conceived idea,” the South Carolina Republican said.

“He is obviously someone who has been a great public servant for a long period of time. He’s worn a lot of hats, he’s served in a lot of different capacities, he’s very knowledgeable, and we always welcome his participation,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said.

Democratic leaders brought out some familiar criticism of Cheney, namely that he was always on the lookout for the best interests of his former employer, Halliburton, a big defense contractor.

“Halliburton did extremely well during his time as vice president, and I assume there has got to be some concern about Halliburton again,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

The Nevada Democrat said the cuts under the sequester could be avoided with other cuts within the budget and tax increases on the top earners. The sequester, which requires cuts of $1.2 trillion roughly split between domestic and defense spending, was triggered by the failure of last year’s super committee to craft such a deal.

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who leads the party’s messaging machine in that chamber, shrugged off Cheney’s appearance. “It’s a free country,” Schumer said.

Congressional Republicans are increasingly focused on warning about what they say will be the ill effects on the economy and the military if cuts that are called for in the sequestration process begin starting next year.  

After his lunch with Republican Senators, Cheney was off to meet with House GOP leaders and their Whip team.

When news of Cheney’s visit got out Monday, a GOP leadership aide told Roll Call that “the former vice president and secretary of Defense obviously has valuable perspective on the devastating impact of President Obama’s defense sequester.”

The office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) declined to release a statement on the meeting Tuesday.

House Democrats had a little more fun with the visit. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) team tweeted a video titled “House GOP Welcomes Architect of Bush Deficits.”

The video pokes at Cheney, quoting media reports of Cheney telling then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill in 2002 that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. We won the midterms. This is our due.” It goes through other television reports and interviews with Cheney on tax cuts, the deficit, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The video tweet shows Congressional Democrats are all on the same messaging page — that is, equating GOP efforts to undo the sequester as a sop to the wealthy.

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said, “You’d think it would be counterintuitive for Republicans to invite a leader of the deficit-busting Bush tax cuts to ‘fire you up’ at a time when the GOP must explain why they are holding tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans hostage unless the top 2 percent gets more tax breaks.”

That sentiment was brought home by the White House, as well.

On board Air Force One on Tuesday, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked about Cheney’s appearance on Capitol Hill and whether Cheney had been in contact with President Barack Obama to discuss the effects of sequestration.

“I don’t have any phone calls to read out to you between the president and the former vice president,” Earnest said. “It does seem odd to me, however, that House Republicans would be taking budget advice from somebody who famously declared that ‘deficits don’t matter’” — the claim underscored at the beginning of the tweeted video.

“The president obviously has a different view, which is that deficits do matter, which is why the president has laid out a balanced approach to dealing with our long-term deficit challenges. He’s hopeful that we’ll finally get Republicans to agree to work with him on that effort,” Earnest continued.

Still, some Republicans, such as Graham and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), held out hope that such a “grand bargain” could be reached.

“I believe we are one fiscal reform package away from being a great nation again, so let’s get on with it,” Corker said. But “the vice president only talked about the pros in appropriate investment in defense. And I think, candidly, whether he had been in a Democratic setting or a Republican setting, his remarks would have been well-received.”

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