House Republicans tell the Senate: You must stop sequester

House Republican leaders on Wednesday put the onus on the Senate to prevent $85 billion in automatic spending cuts even as they quietly began preparing to prevent a bigger government shutdown crisis coming at the end of March.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters that the House will not act to stop the cuts set to hit March 1 unless the Senate acts first.

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Boehner expressed frustration that the Senate did nothing with House-approved bills in the previous Congress that would have replaced the across-the-board sequester with $315 billion in new cuts, and said it was now “incumbent” on President Obama and Senate Democrats to approve a plan by March 1.

“We’ve played our cards, we’ve laid out our hand, passed those bills. [They] went to the Senate and nothing happened,” the Speaker said following a closed-door meeting of his conference. “It’s time for the Senate to do its job.”

Senate Democrats said Wednesday they plan to unveil such a proposal by Thursday, although internal differences still remained on the exact mix of tax increases and spending cuts.

Proposals to cut farm subsidies and raise taxes on oil-and-gas firms face opposition within the caucus. 

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the Senate Finance Committee chairman, told reporters Wednesday he was still trying to find a balance between two imperatives: the need to find revenues to help replace the sequester on one hand, and his broader goal of a comprehensive tax code overhaul on the other.

“We’ve got to get measures that pass,” Baucus said Wednesday. “I want to make sure we can do tax reform.”

A Democratic aide said that Baucus hopes to find revenue for deficit reduction as quickly as possible, which would then allow policymakers to shift their full concentration to tax reform.

Boehner, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republicans say a replacement bill should include no new taxes after the “fiscal cliff” deal earlier this year included $600 billion in new taxes. McConnell concluded Tuesday that the standoff means the sequester is likely to go into effect.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday that the sequester cuts would cause 750,000 lost jobs by the end of 2013 and shave 0.6 percentage points off gross domestic product growth. 

The sequester is just the first of three fiscal deadlines that Washington faces. The second is a possible government shutdown after March 27 and the third is the need to raise the debt ceiling again this summer. 

To deal with the second crisis, House appropriators said Wednesday they are finalizing a stopgap spending bill. That bill could receive a vote before the end of February.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Thursday that he is crafting a continuing resolution  at the current level of spending, thereby separating the issue of a government shutdown from the question of how to deal with automatic sequestration cuts.

The stopgap spending bill would be set at the current level of $1.043 trillion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It would specify the $85 billion sequestration will take place, unless it is separately turned off.

The bill would contain full-year appropriations bills for the Defense Department and cover Military Construction and Veterans Affairs spending. 

By going from a stopgap bill for these areas to a detailed appropriations bill, Rogers hopes to help the Pentagon cope better with the effects of sequestration.

Aides said Rogers began moving forward with the bill after members on the Defense, Veterans and other committees urged him to do something to soften the blow of a yearlong continuing resolution.

Leadership “does not object” to the Rogers initiative, an aide added, and the bill could see floor time anytime from late February until the current stopgap measure runs out after March 27.

“I expect the House will act on a continuing resolution soon, but have no further details, “ Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Wednesday.

Preparing the bill helps the GOP deflect charges, such as one made by the president in his State of the Union Tuesday, that it is eager to lurch from crisis to crisis and shut down the government.

Rogers told reporters that his continuing resolution is consistent with sequestration, but that he wants to see the $85 billion in cuts replaced with entitlement reforms.

House conservatives who want cuts deeper than the sequester could balk at the Rogers proposal. The Heritage Foundation on Wednesday called on the GOP to lower the top-line number even further in reaction to the continuing resolution.

Adding to the challenges Congress faces, members will have to function with reduced staff and resources once the sequester goes into effect.

GOP leaders have prepared a formal notification to lawmakers detailing how to handle the effects of cuts on their congressional office budgets.

Several lawmakers explained to The Hill that they had already planned for major cuts in their annual Member Representational Allowance (MRA), which has averaged $1.3 million for rank-and-file lawmakers. 


Bernie Becker contributed.