Hoyer plays hardball on sequester cuts

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has emerged as one of the fiercest advocates for eliminating the sequester as Congress seeks a viable plan to avoid a government shutdown. [WATCH VIDEO]

 Hoyer, the House minority whip, has long decried the across-the-board cuts in federal spending as a senseless policy that’s damaging to domestic programs, national defense and the economy.

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 But last week, as Congress returned from its long August vacation, he took a harder line by vowing to oppose any spending bill that includes the cuts.

 “I am not going to vote to continue the sequester,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol. “I believe it is inimical to the interests of the United States of America — to our government, to our economy and to our national security.”

 The statement was a notable shift for Hoyer.

 In March, he joined 114 other House Democrats in backing a short-term spending bill to prevent a government shutdown that included the sequester cuts. And just before the August break, he declined to rule out the possibility that he’d do the same thing again this fall.

 Before the recess, he emphasized that any spending bill containing the 2013 spending cap of $988 billion, which includes the automatic cuts, is preferable to the $967 billion, 2014 level many Republicans are urging.

 “I don’t like it,” Hoyer said July 30 of the $988 billion figure. “[But] that is better [than $967 billion], not because it’s simply more money but because it’s a more sustainable figure.”

 Hoyer’s new stand puts him at odds with some other top Democrats, who also strongly oppose the sequester cuts but have not ruled out the option of supporting them in a short-term bill to avoid a government shutdown.

 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for instance, said last week that the $988 billion level is “unacceptable.” But pressed about whether she could support that figure in a pinch, she softened her position.

 “It would have to be a very short time,” she said. “That is part of our discussion: What is the timing?”

 President Obama has also expressed an openness to negotiate with GOP leaders on the sequester to keep the government funded.

 “I’m happy to have a conversation with [Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)] about how we can deal with the so-called sequester,” Obama said in a Friday interview on ABC’s “This Week,” which aired Sunday. “What I haven’t been willing to negotiate, and I will not negotiate, is on the debt ceiling.”

 The role of opposition leader is a natural fit for Hoyer, whose Maryland district is home to more than 110,000 federal employees and retirees and has been hit disproportionately by the indiscriminate federal cuts.

 But his strategy is not without risks. If the government were to shut down on Oct. 1, Democrats want the blame to fall on GOP leaders, who have struggled repeatedly to rally support from their conservative conference behind major bills — and are struggling again to find backing on their continuing resolution (CR) this month.

 Having the second-ranked House Democrat contributing to the shutdown could dilute the message that the Republicans are solely at fault, while exposing the party to claims that there are divisions among the leaders.

 “You never want to have a split among leadership,” a Democratic aide said Monday, emphasizing that there are “no signs that there will be at this point.”

 GOP leaders were forced to pull their CR on federal spending last week due to opposition from conservatives who want to defund ObamaCare. The revolt sent GOP leaders scrambling in search of a bill that can attract 218 Republican votes. By press time Monday, they had not released a replacement. 

 The ObamaCare language makes the vote an easy one for House Democrats, none of whom are expected to back a proposal that undermines the president’s signature healthcare law.

 But if such a bill moves to the Senate, where the Affordable Care Act language would likely be stripped out, then Democrats might face the question of whether to support the sequester cuts, as a CR lacking the ObamaCare language would lose significant GOP support. 

 Democratic leaders insist the burden is on the majority Republicans, but such a scenario would put pressure on Democrats to help pass the bill or face a shutdown. 

 Several Democratic aides said this week that rank-and-file members would likely split on the issue, as they did in the March vote.

 While “everyone agrees that the sequester is devastating on local communities,” the Democratic aide said, “they don’t want to shut down government and don’t want to be blamed for shutting down government.”