Sequester opponents now losing hope

Opponents of sequestration are losing hope that the across-the-board cuts to federal spending will be reversed this year.

The defense industry, health and education advocates and federal worker unions say that the “piecemeal” approach that Congress adopted this week to ease furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not bode well for their cause.

“All of this is rearranging the deck chairs. I’m not overly hopeful,” said Joel Packer of the Committee for Education Funding. “We are really putting our concentration on fiscal 2014 and beyond.”

Republicans and conservative groups see the White House as having “caved” this week on the FAA cuts, and are digging in their heels to keep the level of spending reductions in place.

“I think Democrats are in a corner,” said Andy Roth of the conservative Club for Growth. “It is a case-by-case deal now.”

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GOP leaders in the House said they have “no plans” to bring up broad legislation to replace sequestration, according to a leadership aide. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Friday told his troops they are winning the argument over the need to cut federal spending.

“Consider that the Democrats opening position was they would only replace the sequester with tax increases. By the first of this week Senator Reid proposed replacing the whole sequester with phony war savings. And by last night, Senate Democrats were adopting our targeted ‘cut this, not that’ approach,” Cantor said in memo to his colleagues.

Conservatives said Obama’s decision to accept the FAA fix — which transfers money from airport improvements to pay for air traffic controllers — shows his attempt to pressure Republicans into accepting tax increases has failed.

"Without this crisis at hand, the Democrats are conceding that they have lost the battle over spending cuts,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.

“On taxes, I suspect his leverage was slim even before the FAA fix.  Now, I’d say it is nearly non-existent,” said Dan Holler of the conservative Heritage Action for America.

Lobbyists who have worked to reverse sequestration say the GOP “victory” talk as a sign that a big deficit deal is a long ways off.

“Cantor is saying, this is exactly how we should proceed. We should cut and look at individual cases to make an adjustment,” a major defense lobbyist said. “Overall I’m not very hopeful.”

Packer of the Committee for Education Funding said Obama had indeed lost “a little bit of leverage” to get new taxes that his group sees as necessary.

“Every time Congress exempts something, more or less saying we are keeping the cuts in the aggregate. To a degree he has lost a bit of leverage,” Packer said.

The leader of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which has fought the sequester cuts on behalf of federal workers, expressed frustration at how the debate is playing out.

“People are tired of the whole thing, if it’s not your agency that’s getting the piecemeal fix. Employees are angrier than ever,” said NTEU President Colleen Kelley. “Agencies surely shouldn’t be pitted against each other.”

She said the union wants either a grand bargain on the deficit or a broad sequester replacement to provide certainty to federal workers.

“I don’t see any action coming on any of them, and that’s the problem,” she said.

Some Republicans with ties to the defense industry are seeking a broader fix for sequestration. Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) are planning to push a bill after next week’s recess that would provide more flexibility to the administration.

Liberal Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said he would support the Inhofe approach, despite his opposition to the cuts. He said the FAA vote is a strong indication that sequestration is here to stay.

“It is bleak.  The president is pushing hard to get a comprehensive solution, but Speaker Boehner has made it very clear that he has no interest,” Welch said.

Because the effects of sequestration are cumulative, totaling around $1.2 trillion over 10 years, opponents believe time is on their side, especially as the next fiscal year begins and appropriators try to apply even lower spending caps.

“I think it foretells that Congress will have to fix multiple problems for multiple departments and agencies one at a time as new problems present themselves one by one. It's no way to govern. I think this will put pressure on Congress to come up with a long-term solution,” said Michael Herson of American Defense International.

“As sequestration unfolds, policymakers will surely try to patch the cracks by earmarking their pet priorities in a piecemeal fashion. But they will eventually realize you can’t patch everything,” said Emily Holubowich the executive director of the Coalition for Health Funding “In our society, the most powerful and vocal tend to get a pass. This is nothing new. They may be the first to get a pass. But eventually, there won’t be enough ‘get-out-of-jail-free cards’” to go around.”

Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center said that this week’s quarterly gross domestic product numbers, which were a percentage point below expectations, show that economy is beginning to be affected by the spending cuts.

“I really believe it is wrong to assume that the air traffic vote means a weakening of this effort,” he said. “I believe it is the beginning of the great unraveling of sequestration.”

“Surely the more time that passes, the more evidence there is of the impact,” NTEU’s Kelley said.

Jessica Klement, the legislative director of National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE), opposed the FAA bill as a piecemeal approach.

She said that the FAA bill represented the culmination of “a very successfully PR campaign by the airlines.

“Some of the lesser known agencies would be wise to do the same,” Klement said.

“There are broader economic impacts that we saw this whole week,” she said. “This is an opportunity to show what they are worth. “

While Kelley backed piecemeal fixes when they come up in Congress, other sequester opponents said they should be avoided.

Packer said picking between education programs would be a “Sophie’s Choice.”

For now the White House agrees, at least until the national parks close or other visible effects of the sequester manifest themselves. 

“It is not credible to imagine that you can mitigate the damage done to our economy in a piecemeal, Band-Aid fashion,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.