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 AyotteKelly Ann AyotteThe Hill's Morning Report: Koch Network re-evaluating midterm strategy amid frustrations with GOP Audit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars US sends A-10 squadron to Afghanistan for first time in three years MORE (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 SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Latest on scrapped Korea summit | North Korea still open to talks | Pentagon says no change in military posture | House passes 6B defense bill | Senate version advances House easily passes 7B defense authorization bill Overnight Defense: Over 500 amendments proposed for defense bill | Measures address transgender troops, Yemen war | Trump taps acting VA chief as permanent secretary MORE (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 LevinCarl Milton LevinHow House Republicans scrambled the Russia probe Congress dangerously wields its oversight power in Russia probe The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate MORE (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 McCainJohn Sidney McCainTo woo black voters in Georgia, Dems need to change their course of action Senate panel again looks to force Trump’s hand on cyber warfare strategy Senate panel advances 6B defense policy bill MORE (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 ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell not yet ready to change rules for Trump nominees The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Trump to press GOP on changing Senate rules MORE (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.