By Russell Berman and Jeremy Herb - 02/25/13 09:37 PM EST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team returned to Washington in attack mode on Monday, putting the onus on President Obama to hammer out a plan with Senate Democrats to replace $85 billion in spending cuts that will begin to take effect on March 1.
At a Capitol press conference, Boehner gave no indication the House planned to act this week if the Senate did not do so first. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) downplayed the scheduled cuts as roughly equivalent to 28 days of federal borrowing.
“Let’s put the sequester into perspective. It is $85 billion,” McCarthy said.
“We have a spending problem in Washington. We borrow more than a trillion dollars a year. We roughly borrow $85 billion every 28 days. So what we are looking to do is cut less than what we borrow in one month — not what we spend, but what we borrow.”
Yet as the party leadership is preparing for the cuts to kick in, defense-minded Republican lawmakers moved to introduce proposals to delay or replace the cuts scheduled for military programs.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) is introducing a bill that would target the cuts — rather than letting them hit across-the-board — while legislation from Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) would do away with the defense side of sequestration altogether.
The measures arrive just four days before sequestration is set to take effect, with Republican leadership and the White House at an impasse over finding a fix to the cuts.
Sequestration would take a $46 billion bite out of the Pentagon budget in 2013, and a similar-sized chunk would come out of non-defense discretionary spending.
With the White House aggressively pushing Republicans to bend, the legislation underscores the pressure that members are under to demonstrate they are working on a solution to the stalemate.
Forbes represents a district near Newport News, Va., where President Obama is scheduled to hold a Tuesday rally to pressure congressional Republicans into replacing the sequester with a mix of new tax revenues and more targeted spending cuts.
Forbes told The Hill that he hadn’t attempted to get his party leadership on board with the proposal, but he wanted it out there as a possibility for them in negotiations.
“As you get up to the 11th hour, people start looking at options and things that they didn’t look at before,” he said in a phone interview. “We want to make sure we’ve got vehicles out there that we could stave off this situation.”
Forbes said that his proposal could also become a viable option into March during negotiations on the continuing resolution that’s set to expire at the end of the month — the deadline that many see as the time when Congress will also deal with sequestration.
Forbes said his bill wasn’t designed to re-direct blame away from Republicans on sequester. He said it was just one step toward finding a solution that averts the cuts, comparing it to Democratic bills on sequester that he opposes.
“I think clearly what the president is doing down here and what he’s done the last several weeks is what the president has always done: try to distort the facts,” Forbes said. “The unfortunate thing for the country is those kind of antics are not going to do what we need to do for our national defense.”
The bill would remove the Defense Department from sequestration and reduce the total size of the sequester cuts by that amount, which would total roughly $500 billion over the next decade.
However, the legislation from Forbes will face an uphill battle because many House Republicans want to keep the cuts intact, and Democrats are opposed to stopping only the Pentagon cuts and not the domestic side.
With both parties engaging more in rhetorical attacks than actual negotiations, the cuts are widely expected to begin taking effect before any deal is reached.
The House in 2012 twice passed bills to replace the sequester with other spending cuts, but those measures are inoperative because they occurred in the last Congress. The House has not acted in 2013.
Boehner and other Republicans say that the tax increases Obama is demanding as part of any replacement are out of the question.
“Well, Mr. President, you got your tax increase. It’s time to cut spending here in Washington,” Boehner said.
“Instead of using our military men and women as campaign props, if the president were serious, he’d sit down with Harry Reid and begin to address our problems. The House has acted twice. We shouldn’t have to act a third time for the Senate to begin to do their work.”
Coffman’s bill wouldn’t stop the Pentagon cuts but would allow for targeted defense reductions; all sides agree that sequestration’s across-the-board mechanism is bad policy.
The legislation would save $500 billion with moves like reducing the number of active duty U.S. troops to pre-9/11 levels, adopting a “sea swap” policy for some Navy ships and spending less on biofuels and military bands.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) also introduced legislation earlier this month to avoid the first year of sequestration by cutting the size of the federal workforce. McKeon’s legislation, which has a companion bill in the Senate, has not gained any traction with leadership to move forward.