By Molly K. Hooper - 02/19/13 10:00 AM EST
House GOP lawmakers say they do not fear political blowback if Congress fails to prevent $85 billion in automatic spending cuts from triggering in two weeks.
The cuts known as the sequester are almost certain to hit the Pentagon and non-defense discretionary spending on March 1, and congressional Republicans and the White House are focused more now on avoiding blame for the cuts than preventing them.
Already the White House warns that the cuts will reduce loan guarantees to small businesses, end Head Start funding for 70,000 children and leave 373,000 seriously mentally ill people without treatment.
It says there will be fewer food inspections, raising the potential for a food-borne illness outbreak, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will need to eliminate grants for firefighters and emergency personnel.
All of these dire warnings set up the potential to blame Republicans for economic ills or emergencies that occur in the sequester’s wake, regardless of whether they are directly caused by the $85 billion in cuts.
Rank-and-file Republicans say they’re not worried their leverage could be cut once the spending cuts are triggered, though they acknowledge Obama is a tough political adversary.
“It’s hard to compete with the bully pulpit that the president has,” acknowledged Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).
But he and other Republicans see the sequester as the best way possible to actually reduce government spending, which they see as the biggest threat to the nation. They are also ready to note the spending cuts will also affect their own offices.
“The bigger concern is what is good for the country,” said Lamborn, who will have to lay off one of his own staffers because of the sequester.
Republicans are also getting ready to battle by reminding voters it was the White House that conceived of the sequester — the $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions, including lower interest payments, that were included as part of the deal in 2011 to raise the debt ceiling.
The cuts were meant to serve as an incentive for a supercommittee of lawmakers to produce a different deficit-reduction plan. If the supercommitte failed, sequester would happen, and it was designed to impose painful cuts on both defense and non-defense spending so that both Republicans and Democrats would feel political pain.
“It was his [Obama’s] idea — we know that there are elections coming in 2014 — we know that the president and the party will be all out to reclaim the House, but we have acted in good faith, so the president can put all this on Republicans all he wants, but that's just not the fact,” sophomore Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said in an interview with The Hill.
Conservative groups have also kept pressure on lawmakers, urging them not to waiver from their stance and predicting political advantage from the cuts taking effect.
“If [Republicans] don't shy away from this, if they don't run from their own shadows and they don't [buckle] at the last minute, I think it's a battle they can win,” conservative Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler said.
“The reason [Republicans] lose the battling war to the president so often is they can't get themselves on a clear path as to where they want to go — this is pretty easy, this is law,” he added.
With the cuts set to take effect on March 1, there is little time left for Washington to shut off the sequester.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has called for the Senate to act first to halt the sequester, expressing frustration that the upper chamber did not move on House bills from the previous Congress that sought to replace the across-the-board axe with targeted cuts.
Senate Democrats unveiled a bill last week that would replace the sequester with $110 billion in deficit reduction, but also includes $55 billion in new tax revenues.
The bill includes a measure to impose a minimum 30 percent tax on millionaires, modeled after the "Buffett Rule," named for billionaire investor Warren Buffett, a proponent of higher tax rates on the wealthy.
Those tax provisions are unlikely to pass the GOP House, and Democrats are prepared to charge that Republicans rejected a sequester replacement to protect tax breaks for the wealthy.
“It's a losing argument for Republicans ... when you've seen clearly that the American people believe in having the wealthy pay their fair share in order to fund the things that are important to all of us — FBI, Border Patrol — all sorts of things that matter on a daily basis,” said Andy Stone, spokesman for the Democratic-affiliated House Majority PAC. "That's why this is a losing prospect for them.”
Democrats also contend that pressure from business groups wary of financial uncertainty once the sequester kicks in could cut GOP leverage and bring Republicans back to the table.
"We’re going to be hearing more and more from businesses who are going to be impacted, from people who are going to be furloughed, who won’t be able to pay their mortgage, impacting the housing market again," Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said last week.
But with the toll on the economy uncertain, one House Democrat cautions that neither side will gain politically if sequestration takes effect.
“I think we'll all get blamed as I think is probably appropriate because I think it's a terrible way to govern," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). "I think there is more time being spent right now trying to figure out who's going to catch the blame than trying to fix it."