Hoyer: Dems underestimated 'irresponsibility' of GOP on sequester

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The minority whip said Democrats backed the sequester only as a desperation move to prevent a government default 18 months ago, when GOP leaders were insisting on sharp spending cuts to accompany a last-minute debt-ceiling hike. But no one, Hoyer said, thought Republicans would let those cuts kick in – until now.

"It was a case of, 'We don't want to default,' [and] the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives," Hoyer said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "In that context, I'm not sure a miscalculation was made because we avoided defaulting on our debt, which would have had very, very dire consequences on our domestic economy and on the international community's economy.

"If there was a miscalculation," he added, "it was that a large number of people could be so irresponsible as to pursue this policy."

The comments arrive as President Obama and congressional Democrats are trying to increase the pressure on House GOP leaders to vote this week on legislation averting the $85 billion in automatic cuts scheduled to take effect on Friday.

The Democrats are pushing a pair of alternative plans that would replace the sequester with a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. GOP leaders, meanwhile, have refused to consider new revenues as part of any deal, arguing that the tax hikes included in last month's "fiscal-cliff" deal put the revenue side of the equation to rest. By allowing the cuts to take place, they've determined that steep cuts to the Pentagon are a lesser evil than new tax hikes.

Behind Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Republican leaders say they already did their job to prevent the sequester when they passed two bills last Congress averting the defense cuts. Although those bills expired with the arrival of the new Congress, GOP leaders insist the ball is in the Senate's court.

“We have moved a bill in the House twice," Boehner said Tuesday at a press conference in the Capitol. "We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something.”

Enacted in August 2011 as part of the bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling, the sequester consists of more than $1 trillion in cuts to defense and discretionary domestic spending over the next decade.

The unpopular cuts were designed to be the bludgeon that would motivate the fiscal supercommittee – a 12-member bipartisan panel created by the same law – to reach agreement on an alternative deficit reduction plan. When the panel failed in that effort, it triggered the sequester.

Hoyer on Tuesday pinned the blame for the looming cuts squarely on the shoulders of the Republicans, arguing that the notion of across-the-board cuts is a deliberate strategy that conservatives have supported for years.

"Don't act as if … somehow somebody miscalculated. What the Republicans said [was], 'We're not going to pass it [the debt-limit hike] unless you have this [sequestration],'" Hoyer said. "This stuff that all of a sudden the Republicans were surprised, and this is a presidential proposal, is malarkey."

Hoyer conceded that GOP opposition to new revenues means Congress will likely miss the March 1 deadline for averting the sequester cuts. But he suggested that the negative effects of those cuts on jobs and the economy would anger voters, who would then pressure Republicans to reconsider.

"They're not going to do it because we urge them to do it; they're not going to do it because we think it's a reasonable policy," Hoyer said. "They're going to do it because the American people – democracy works – because the American people … [insist on] a balanced package."