Rival sequester bills teed up in Senate

Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate are teeing up rival bills aimed at shielding their members from blame when an $85 billion cut to federal spending takes effect on Friday. 

The Senate will vote this week on two proposals to stop the cuts, known in Washington as the sequester, but neither version is expected to pass, according to Senate aides. 

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recognize their bills are dead on arrival, but are forging ahead in an effort to secure public support in the messaging war over sequestration.

The dueling votes could take place as soon as Wednesday, but a senior Democratic aide said Thursday is the more likely date. Each proposal must garner 60 votes to pass, and there is no Plan B.

The Republican plan would maintain the level of spending reductions but give President Obama more flexibility to minimize their impact on military preparedness and other vital government services, such as air traffic control and airport security screening. 

The Democratic package, meanwhile, would freeze the sequester through the end of the calendar year and offset the $110 billion cost with an even mix of spending cuts and tax increases. 

Both bills will be used as ammunition in the political firefight over the sequester, which has intensified in the run-up to Friday’s deadline. 

Democrats are planning a full-scale campaign to blame Republicans for cutting vital government services in order to preserve niche corporate tax breaks. 

“We’re just going to use every tool at our disposal to pressure Republicans to come to the table,” said a senior Democratic aide. “In the past it’s been the deadlines that forced them to come to the table. Now it’s just a question of convincing them it’s worth their while to come to the table and negotiate.”

Republicans will counter by accusing the president of choosing the campaign stump over the negotiating table. McConnell and other Republicans have criticized Obama for not putting forward a comprehensive plan to reduce spending, and say his insistence on more tax hikes is the only thing standing in the way of a deal. 

Leaders in both parties are under pressure to unify their members ahead of the votes.

Democratic senators will vote in unison against the GOP proposal because they want to ramp up pressure on Republican leaders, Democratic aides said.

But Republicans predict some Democratic lawmakers up for reelection in conservative-leaning states might balk at supporting the $55 billion tax increase in Reid’s bill. 

Both sides think public support will swing their direction once the cuts from sequestration begin.

Democrats acknowledge there has been less public attention to the spending cuts than in previous fiscal fights, but they believe Republicans will crumble once the public realizes how broadly the sequester will disrupt their lives. 

“It seems like they’re putting on a brave face,” a senior Democratic aide said of Republicans. “There haven’t been as severe warnings as there were before the fiscal cliff or the debt ceiling. They’re erring in betting the consequences won’t be too tough.”

Republicans insist they are not going to raise any more revenues through taxes, as Democrats are demanding, and note that overall federal spending will still increase after the sequester takes effect. 

GOP Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) have worked on a package of proposals that is likely to become the GOP’s sequestration alternative.

Coburn believes Obama already has the power to structure federal budgets so that most of the cuts from sequestration hit low-priority and duplicative programs. He and his colleagues are preparing legislation to explicitly give the president more flexibility to shift funding to high-priority programs. 

 Coburn sent a letter Friday to Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, urging her to use her authority to protect critical programs.

“Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance provided to agencies on January 14, 2013 urged each agency to ‘use any available flexibility to reduce operational risks and minimize impacts on the agency’s core mission…’ This language provides a unique opportunity for each federal department to reduce spending in each program on those expenditures that are less essential,” Coburn wrote. 

Napolitano warned Monday that the country would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks if the sequester were to take effect.

Toomey says the sequester must be reworked to soften its impact on the military.

“I think we must go through with this reduction in increased spending but we need to give the president and agency heads the discretion to proceed with the cuts in a better way,” Toomey said Monday morning at the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I want to give the president this flexibility. The other side so far has pushed back.”

Democrats say if the proposal to give Obama more flexibility to manage the cuts were to pass, Republicans would have less incentive to negotiate a package to reduce the total size of the spending cuts by ending corporate tax breaks. 

“Democrats would temporarily replace this harsh austerity with a combination of smart spending reductions and measures that would close corporate loopholes and end wasteful subsidies and ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more,” Reid said on the floor Monday. 

Senate aides said there was no negotiation between Obama and Republican leaders over the Presidents Day recess except for brief phone calls the president made to McConnell and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Republicans believe Obama purposely kept his distance so that he could blame them in a public campaign for not doing anything to reverse the cuts.