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The sequester’s deep cut to the Defense Department budget was supposed to be the club that cowed the GOP, but the party’s defense hawks are now outnumbered by Republicans who put cutting spending at the top of their priority list.
Indeed, after the fiscal-cliff deal, Republican leaders regrouped. Boehner repeatedly told his restive conference they would stand firm on the sequester.
Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky stuck to a mantra that worked to unify their fractious party — the president had already gotten his tax hikes and now it was time for spending cuts. Boehner and McConnell, the master of back-room deals, also promised their rank and file that the time for private deal-making was over.
Republican aides said the GOP has maneuvered the president into a corner. Aides believe the sequester will affect Democratic constituencies more deeply than Republicans’, and by adding defense-related bills into the continuing resolution, they feel they can pacify their own hawks longer than Congressional Democrats can keep in line their members who cherish social programs.
“It’s going to be more comfortable for us than it is for them,” a House GOP leadership aide predicted.
Indeed, another senior Senate Democratic aide acknowledged that it will be hard for Democrats to keep holding the line against GOP efforts to give the president flexibility on how to implement the sequester.
Republicans also believe that they are bearing dividends of the “Williamsburg Accord,” in which Republicans agreed to push off the debt ceiling, and noted they will move a CR well in advance of a shutdown.
“Without a catastrophic news-friendly deadline ... pressure builds slowly rather than a sudden cataclysmic event, which makes the president’s bully pulpit less effective,” the House aide said.
All this has Republican leaders thinking it is just a matter of time before Democrats come to them, hat in hand, acceding to a sequester deal without tax increases.
The president seems to be at a loss as to how to get Congress to bend to his wishes.
“Sometimes I reflect, you know, is there something else I could do to make ... some of the House Republican caucus members not — not paint horns on my head?” he asked at a White House news conference on March 1.
Obama joked that people seem to think he should perform a “Jedi mind meld” with Republicans to get them to agree, and at another point he rhetorically asked the reporters in the room for advice.
He gamely warned again of the consequences of the sequester — although he seemed somewhat more subdued than at the rallies he’s had across the country against the cuts.
He insisted the sequester would cost 750,000 jobs and knock as much as 0.5 percent off of gross domestic product this year.
“We’re not making that up. That’s not a scare tactic. That’s a fact,” Obama said of the economic consequences.
He also kept up his attack line against the GOP.
“They’ve allowed these cuts to happen because they refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to help reduce the deficit,” he said.
He said he would reach out to a “caucus of common sense” on Capitol Hill in both parties willing to accept both entitlement cuts and new revenue.