Sequester strategies

The White House and Congress are unlikely to avert cuts to defense and domestic spending that are set to go into effect March 1.

But that doesn’t mean they will sit idle and silent on matters related to the “sequester” — a poll by The Hill published Monday found that two-thirds of likely voters do not know what it is — between now and the day, two weeks from now, the ax falls.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday, “It is pretty clear to me that the sequester is going into effect.”

He acknowledged that Senate Democrats are trying to put together a bill to deal with the spending cuts, but noted that the Senate GOP will probably propose an alternative. That “doesn’t lead to a solution,” he said, it “just leads to a couple of votes.”

House Republicans point out that they already passed two bills in 2012 forestalling the sequester, but that Senate spurned them. House Democrats have their own plan, authored by Budget Committee ranking member Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

The problem is not the sequester itself — every congressional leader, as well as the president, opposes the automatic, across-the-board reductions in non-entitlement spending, which became law in 2011.

The dispute is, rather, the same one that the two parties have been battling over for years: taxes. Republicans reject the idea of raising tax revenues as an alternative to the sequester, saying the White House already got its tax increases in the “fiscal cliff” deal.

GOP officials also are dismayed that the president has pocketed those revenues and is now seeking more, rather than making lowering the deficit via spending cuts his priority. Absent other, better ways of cutting spending, many Republicans will accept the sequester as the next best thing.

President Obama is urging Congress to avert the sequester with warnings that it would damage the economy and jeopardize national security, as half the cuts will come from military coffers. Last fall, he said during a presidential debate that the sequester is “not going to happen.”

There is a chance for a last-minute deal to prevent sequestration — there is always a chance of a last-minute deal in Washington — yet McConnell threw cold water on that possibility on Tuesday.

“Read my lips: I am not interested in an eleventh-hour negotiation,” he said.

The one reason to believe that just such a negotiation will happen is that the politician who made the “read my lips” phrase famous, former President George H.W. Bush, then went on and did exactly what he had said he would not do, and agreed to raise taxes.

McConnell was a major player in striking the fiscal-cliff deal, but he was dismayed at how it was arrived at. The Senate vote took place when the legislation had not been officially scored for cost and lawmakers had not even read it. To his credit, McConnell subsequently acknowledged that he was disappointed in how the agreement ended up on the statute book.

If Senate Democrats rally around a sequester bill, McConnell will face a choice about whether to block it or let it pass with a majority vote — and thus let it take its chances in the House, where Republicans have a majority.

Democrats are eager to portray the GOP again as protecting the wealthy and would relish headlines about Republicans blocking a measure that would avert defense cuts, and would facilitate accusations that Republicans were damaging the economy by protecting the rich.

McConnell, who is up for reelection, might opt to let the bill die in the GOP-led House rather than have those charges focus more on him than on his colleagues in the lower chamber.

Tactics aside, the sequester is getting closer, and the chances of it being thwarted are low.