GOP senators propose House-Senate work groups on sequester

Senate Republicans are floating the idea of establishing House-Senate working groups as a way to forge a compromise plan to avoid massive defense budget cuts in the coming year.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said that forming the bipartisan working groups would be a critical piece in getting lawmakers in both chambers on the same page, regarding the automatic defense cuts under sequestration.

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"I see that as the [main] step forward right now," Ayotte said on Tuesday of the planned House-Senate working groups.

On Friday, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the idea of the working groups has also been informally discussed among Democrats in both chambers, including by Senate Armed Services Committee chief Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

"Nothing [has] formalized yet, [but] obviously I talk occasionally to Senator Levin and others about it," he told The Hill.

The groups, he added, "would be a good idea" to try and break the partisan stalemate over what can be done to avoid sequestration.

Ayotte's office has discussed the idea with Levin and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate Defense committee's ranking member, in recent weeks, according to a Senate Republican aide.

But the Senate aide told The Hill on Wednesday that Ayotte's office was still in the midst of gauging support for the measure and had yet to lay out any concrete plans for the working groups.

A group of 15 to 30 senators has been drafting sequestration alternatives behind closed doors for the past month, but those talks have largely remained on the Democrat-controlled Senate side.

Bringing in House members via the working groups could hasten those informal Senate talks into a tangible, bipartisan solution that can be brought to the White House.

But one top House Republican argues that lawmakers in the lower chamber have already come up with a solution, and all Senate Democrats have to do is call it up for a vote.

On Friday, House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) demanded that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) call a vote on the alternate sequestration plan House Republicans forced through the lower chamber in May.

If the measure passes the Senate, then both chambers can hash out the differences via conference committee without the need for a separate working group, McKeon spokesman Claude Chafin told the Hill.

But the chances of the House measure passing the Senate are slim at best. The White House and Pentagon have panned the plan for its excessive cuts to social welfare programs to spare defense expenditures. President Obama has vowed to veto the measure if it ever reached his desk.

If these House-Senate working groups do become reality, Smith said that his position and that of other House Democrats will not change.

"My position is pretty straightforward. We have to find $1.2 trillion, revenue has to be part of it and we can’t separate out defense," Smith said "I don’t want to see transportation and housing and education devastated any more than I want to see defense devastated."

— Jeremy Herb contributed.

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