"We screwed ourselves here."
That was Sen. Lindsey Graham's take on the budget law that led to the sequester Thursday morning at the Appropriations Committee markup of the fiscal 2014 Defense spending bill. The South Carolina Republican said he voted against the 2011 Budget Control Act fearing a worst-case scenario in which the bipartisan supercommittee didn't produce an outcome, leading to the sequester.
Graham was explaining his vote against the $594.4 billion Defense measure, which exceeds the spending caps established by the budget law. Graham, however, praised the efforts of Subcommittee Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in putting together the bill.
This is Durbin's first go-around as chairman of the Defense subcommittee, having succeeded the late Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii in that role.
"If Congress and the president cannot reach an agreement to undo sequestration, the Department of Defense must take across-the-board cuts that total approximately $52 billion in fiscal year 2014," Durbin said. "As Secretary [Chuck] Hagel has made clear, further sequestration will start a wave of impacts on the people who keep our country safe. Civilian workers will be laid off, instead of simply being furloughed."
Durbin and others also reiterated the view of Democrats and some Republicans that the fiscal 2014 Budget resolution should get to a House-Senate conference committee to come up with final budget levels, which has repeatedly been blocked by one group of Senate Republicans. He also expressed a hope to avoid a long-term continuing resolution, acknowledging that at least a short one will be needed.
"If you think that a CR is the answer to this, it is not," Durbin said.
Of course, Congress is heading full speed ahead toward a debate over another such stopgap measure approaching Oct. 1. A point that became all the more clear Wednesday when House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., criticized the move to delay floor consideration of that chamber's Transportation-HUD spending bill.
"With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago,"Rogers said in a statement. "Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration — and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts — must be brought to an end."
The Senate's version of that same bill faces a test vote on limiting debate Thursday afternoon. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is pushing opposition to the measure, citing the Transportation-HUD bill exceeding the budget levels provided under the Budget Control Act. It appears likely he will prevail in keeping the measure from achieving the 60 votes needed to limit debate.
Transportation-HUD Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray made one last effort to win support in a floor speech Thursday.
"The only thing that can block the passage of this bill, the only way a bipartisan bill with the support of the majority could be stopped, is if Republican leaders whip their own members into filibustering a jobs and infrastructure bill many of those Republicans actually support," the Washington Democrat said. "The choice before us is clear. And I urge my colleagues to make the right one. This vote isn’t about whether or not you support this exact bill, or agree with this exact spending level."