Republicans struggle in public relations battle over sequestration cuts

Congressional Republicans are struggling to overcome President Obama’s bully pulpit advantage in the public relations battle over the sequester.

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Some Republicans say the party was in a weak position as Obama repeatedly blamed the GOP this week for the spending cuts while their members were scattered around the country.

“It is very clear that the president is winning the message war on the sequester,” said Ron Bonjean, a onetime spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “When House Republicans return from recess they will have a chance to counteract the message.”

Obama, feeling he has the upper hand, is looking to press his case further before the $85 billion in automatic cuts take effect on Friday. He is scheduled to head on Tuesday to Hampton Roads, an area of Virginia filled with defense installations, to rail against the cuts and the 800,000 civilian furloughs that they would bring to the Pentagon.

Republicans are seeking to battle back, and say their members will be out in force in Washington next week to press the case that sequestration is a policy fiasco of Obama’s own making.

Any thought that Obama gained leverage over the recess week is a Beltway illusion, Republicans say. While the president opined about the cuts from Washington, GOP lawmakers were bringing their message directly to constituents in interviews with local media.

“Republicans are confident we are on solid ground,” a GOP leadership aide told The Hill.

John Feehery, a GOP strategist who also writes a column for The Hill, noted that most House Republicans currently represent safe GOP districts, making them more insulated from the president's use of the bully pulpit.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal this week about sequestration, but also sent one to the Dayton Daily News, where he noted that thousands of employees at a local air force base could face furloughs.

“When it comes to generating buzz on the Washington level, Obama’s got a commanding advantage, which is typical for a president,” Feehery said. “But at the local level, each member of Congress can put their own slant on things.”

With both the White House and the GOP digging in, there is little hope that a sequester deal can be reached next week, which makes the public relations blame game that much more important.

Still, with both the White House and the GOP digging in — and with little hope that a sequester deal can be reached next week — some Republicans are concerned the president's use of the bully pulpit could give him a leg up in the blame game.

Obama gave sit-down interviews this week with local television stations from across the country, and held an event with first responders that the White House says would be affected by the sequester.

On Friday, he deployed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to warn that furloughs from sequestration could cause chaos for air travel.

Top GOP aides, meanwhile, were criticizing Obama for prioritizing politics over policy, and dismissed the president’s outreach to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as mere window dressing.

Republican aides also continue to press the case that the sequester, born out of the debt ceiling talks in the summer of 2011, was Obama’s idea in the first place. They also say sequestration is much different from the “fiscal cliff,” when doing nothing meant taxes would go up for basically everyone in the U.S.

“The White House is over-reaching,” the GOP leadership aide said. “The over-confidence is so great that the president isn’t actually engaging Congress in finding a solution. He’s more busy campaigning, as numerous media reports have noted.”

But some strategists say those arguments might be lost on the general public, and are hard to deploy against the attention-grabbing stagecraft of the White House.

“Republicans have been on the right side of this the whole time,” Bonjean said. “But it’s harder when you have to explain math through spokesmen. You have to have your leadership driving a message every day in front of the cameras.”

“The real truth is that the math doesn’t add up any more,” Bonjean added. “It is emotional stories versus cold hard facts, and emotional stories are easier to get across.”

Congressional Republicans have also taken heat from the right for arguing that sequestration is dangerous and unwise, but should only be reversed with other spending cuts. Conservative columnist Byron York teed off on what he called an "astonishingly bad" message.

"The effect of Boehner’s argument is to make Obama seem reasonable in comparison," York wrote in a Washington Examiner column that the White House later publicized. "After all, the president certainly agrees with Boehner that the sequester cuts threaten national security and jobs. The difference is that Obama wants to avoid them."

Feehery noted that Republicans themselves weren’t totally united about the cuts, with some defense hawks joining the Pentagon in saying sequestration would deal a blow to national security. Other conservatives are more than happy to pocket the spending cuts.

“There is a fine line there,” said Feehery, a former Republican leadership aide in the House. “You have to let people know that this is about a larger problem — that we’ve got to do something about our debt, and this forces us to get to the table. That’s not a perfect message, but it’s not a perfect conflict.”

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats have augmented the president’s message by holding their own events — including a Thursday hearing in Washington — to shine a light on the real-world impact of sequestration.

Senate Democrats are expected to vote next week on a sequester replacement that would be roughly split between new revenues and spending cuts, at the same time Obama continues to brandish poll numbers that say voters want deficit reduction to include a mix of both.

Congressional Republicans are also not scheduled to get much airtime on this week’s Sunday talk shows, as governors from both parties are instead expected to discuss the dangers of sequestration.

To battle back and draw media attention, Bonjean said he would not be surprised if House Republicans bring their own sequestration bill to the floor.

GOP leaders have been saying for weeks that the House has twice passed a replacement package. But both those measures were passed last year, and expired with the start of the new Congress.

“Most people don’t understand what the sequester is,” Bonjean said. "It makes it tougher for Republicans to communicate.”