Obama’s veto threat on spending bills falls flat

Experts who closely follow the federal budget are dismissing President Obama’s threat to veto appropriations bills as political gamesmanship that will end with the cuts from sequestration likely in place.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pushed back aggressively on Obama’s threat this week, rekindling the debate over the sequester cuts that began to hit federal agencies on March 1.

But budget analysts don’t expect the dust-up between Boehner and Obama to rouse Congress out its budget inertia. They see a high probability that the automatic spending cuts from sequestration remain effect in 2014.

“It looks like the sequester is more likely to stay in effect. … quite possibly through next year,” said Maya MacGuiness of the Campaign to Fix the Debt. “We have the president’s threat, but sometimes he sticks to it and sometimes he doesn’t.”

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Obama raised the threat of a government shutdown this week in an attempt to go on offense in the looming budget battle. He said he would not sign any of the 12 annual spending bills into law unless the next round of sequester cuts are dealt with.

Republicans dismissed the threat, but also saw it as a chance to make Obama look irresponsible for suggesting a shutdown.

Boehner shot back in a Thursday letter, arguing that Obama should commit to keeping the government operating while a deficit grand bargain to reduce the deficit is worked out.

Work on such a grand bargain is stalled as Democrats demand tax and Republicans seek only cuts to mandatory spending, including from Medicare and Medicaid.

A related fight over the debt ceiling that could result in deal to stop some of the sequester cuts has been pushed into November, after the current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, removing yet another reason for lawmakers to act.

Liberal Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said that the White House and Boehner spat was just rhetoric.

“This is just part of the ongoing back and forth,” he said.

“I opposed the sequester. I am pessimistic at the moment with the current Congress it is really possible to get rid of it,” Welch added.

Bob Bixby of the Concord Coalition said the blame game indicates that both sides are girding for any ugly fight when the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30 and approval of legislation to fund the government is needed.

“I view it as early positioning over blame,” he said. “Both sides are anticipating pretty nasty fights on fiscal policy.”

Bixby noted that the House is proceeding with 12 annual spending bills with a top-line level that assumes the sequester cuts remain in effect, while the Senate is ignoring them for 2014. The House increases defense spending above the sequester level and cuts domestic spending below it as an offset. 

If the result is a continuing resolution to fund the government, an automatic sequester cut will hit 15 days after Congress adjourns to implement the scheduled cuts largely across-the-board.

“This is almost guaranteeing a crack up,” Bixby said.

Both parties have problems with the sequester. Republicans are focused on the damage to the defense budget from indiscriminate cuts, while Democrats want pressure taken off of social programs.

“If both sides start with the proposition that the sequester is bad, maybe you can get some entitlement reform, maybe some revenue and that could give you leverage to raise the debt ceiling,” he said.

“I could see a sequestration as the vehicle,” he said.

The liberal Center for American Progress, which is closely linked to the Obama administration, said this week that Washington should focus on a small deal that turns off three years of sequestration cuts, through 2016. It continued to call for new tax increases to replace the cuts, however.

Such a proposal is unlikely to sway Republicans, who see themselves as having the upper hand since sequestration will remain in effect if Congress does nothing.

“The veto threat comes from a position of weakness. President Obama’s leverage on appropriations and the sequester is minimal because he was unable to scare the public earlier this year,” said Dan Holler of the conservative Heritage Action.

“Speaker Boehner’s quick reaction to the President’s veto threat was savvy.  Not only did it allude to the GOP’s strong position on the issue, but it also blunted any momentum the President hoped to gain by ginning up a shutdown fight.”

GOP strategist Ron Bonjean agreed.

"Congressional Republicans have learned to play offense because it serves as the best defense in defining the upcoming spending and debt ceiling fights. The sequester isn't likely to change, but there will be an public relations war over the various spending bills, and Republicans are making their case in the strongest manner possible,” he said.