Republican lawmakers feel buyer’s remorse over vote to raise debt limit

Republicans are dealing with a bad case of buyer’s remorse over the summer debt deal that led to a supercommittee failure and $500 billion in automatic cuts to defense spending.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who backed the deal, told The Hill that he would “strongly consider” voting against it if he could go back in time.

ADVERTISEMENT
The deal to raise the debt ceiling created a bicameral, bipartisan committee of lawmakers charged with agreeing to $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts. It also included a failsafe: If the 12-member committee failed, a sequestration of $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts would be triggered, including $500 billion in defense cuts that members of both parties now desperately wish to avoid.

While most observers in Washington were unsurprised by the supercommittee’s failure, McKeon said he assumed it would succeed.

“I voted for it because I was told the supercommittee couldn’t fail, because sequestration was so bad that they would have to come together on that,” McKeon said. “Well, obviously it didn’t work, so now we find ourselves in a very difficult situation.

“Can I go back knowing what I know now, and change my vote then? We don’t get that luxury around here.”

McKeon and other lawmakers are now looking for alternatives.

The GOP chairman has authored a bill to replace the first year of sequestration cuts, which would be implemented in 2013, by trimming the federal workforce.

Such legislation has sparked accusations from the White House and Democrats that Republicans are trying to back out of the debt-limit deal.

“Not all voted for it, but those who did would like to pretend that they didn’t, or that they didn’t understand the consequences of the vote, even though the consequences were clear,” said Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Democrats so far have rebuffed Republican efforts. No Democrats have signed on to proposals from McKeon and a group of GOP senators led by Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and John McCain (Ariz.).

Some Democrats, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.), believe the automatic cuts to the Pentagon give their party leverage. He has predicted Republicans will back down from their pledge not to raise taxes to stave off the defense cuts.

White House press secretary Jay Carney last week said the McCain-Kyl bill, which would also cut the federal workforce to save defense spending, “should be the legislation that says, ‘America, we didn’t mean what we said.’”

“It can’t be that some members of Congress promised to their constituents, promised to America, with the Budget Control Act, ‘Look what we’ve done — we’re holding our own feet to the fire, my fellow Americans,’” Carney said. “And then a few months later decide, ‘We didn’t really mean it, let’s change that.’”

Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics with potentially dire cuts to the Pentagon. The defense budget is already being cut by $487 billion over the next 10 years — as a result of budget caps also included in the Budget Control Act — and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said repeatedly that the additional cuts would decimate the military.

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said he had no regrets about voting for the Budget Control Act, adding that some Democrats rooted for the supercommittee to fail.

“I gave the system in Washington, D.C., an opportunity to work,” West said. “I really believe there were some people from the other side of the aisle that maybe did not want to see that supercommittee do well, because they never care for us having a good, strong defense budget.”

Some Republicans pushing to change the sequester voted against the Budget Control Act, and they’ve taken a harsher stance against it. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said last week that allowing sequestration to occur “is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible political decisions [to have been] made around here in memory.”

“I can’t speak to what my colleagues feel about the Budget Control Act, but I felt very strongly that it was the wrong direction for us and for our country,” Ayotte told The Hill.

Most Democrats also don’t want to see the defense cuts occur, but they disagree with Republicans over what to replace them with. It’s the same problem that doomed the supercommittee: Democrats want to include higher taxes; Republicans want entitlement reforms and say higher taxes should be off the table.

“While it might appear we’re locked in on a no-tax position, they’re locked in on a tax-only position, that we can’t cut their sacred cows,” McKeon said.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), co-chairman of the supercommittee, said the panel tried “to find a fair way to do this so that everyone in America did their part in solving the problem.”

“If they want to put forward a plan that is fair and balanced, then we’ll take a look at it,” Murray said.

Many budget watchers and members of Congress are doubtful much will get done on sequestration until after the November election, because neither side is willing to give beforehand.

McKeon and McCain have warned repeatedly that this approach takes too long, because it leaves the Pentagon and defense industry with a $500 billion cloud hanging over their heads for a year, the amount the defense budget would be cut under sequestration in 2013.

McKeon said that defense contractors will be forced to fire workers to prepare for the cuts, even if they don’t ultimately occur. He said his bill isn’t an attempt to shirk the responsibility of deficit cutting, but rather is designed so Congress has time to properly address the cuts without the election looming.

“That gives us breathing time, so that hopefully a new president can come in, we can take a breath, and he can evaluate things and have time to put in his programs,” McKeon said.