Pre-election deal to avert looming sequestration cuts looks unlikely

The rhetoric on pending cuts to the Pentagon intensified this week, but the chances of a pre-election deal to avert those spending reductions and others appear unlikely.

Both parties are digging into their positions on the across-the-board cuts ahead of the November election, as the cuts are poised to play an increasingly visible role in congressional and the presidential campaigns.

But all the messaging and campaigning on sequestration is quickly evaporating what little chance may have existed for a deal to avert some of the cuts before the election, something defense-minded lawmakers in both parties have called on Congress to do.

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“All the heated and increasingly bitter rhetoric means everybody is digging in their heels deeper, which does not bode well for a grand or even mini-bargain in the lame duck,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “It definitely means nothing will happen before [the election].”

Most Republicans and Democrats do not want the cuts through sequestration, roughly $500 billion to both defense and non-defense spending over the next decade, to occur. Yet, they have generated little movement in the past 11 months toward finding alternative deficit reduction since sequestration was included in the Budget Control Act last year as a punitive measure.

The week’s events in Congress only entrenched the parties’ ideological disagreements.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who is in charge of retaining the Democrats’ majority in the upper chamber, suggested on Monday that Democrats should go over the “fiscal cliff” — letting the Bush-era tax rates expire and the sequestration cuts occur —if Republicans refuse to raise taxes on upper-income earners.

“Unless Republicans end their commitment to protecting the rich above all else, our country is going to have to face the consequences of Republican intransigence,” Murray said at the Brookings Institution.

Her position was echoed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this week, and President Obama has threatened to veto attempts to undo sequestration without a “balanced” approach to alternate deficit reduction.

GOP leaders responded by accusing Democrats threatening to hold the economy hostage in order to raise taxes.

Republicans in Congress turned their fire on Obama. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said this week in an interview with The Hill that blame for sequestration lies with the president for being AWOL.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also pinned the cuts on Obama.

“Remember one thing, we have this sequester because the president of the United States, for his own convenience, only wanted to deal with the debt limit once before the election,” Boehner told reporters at his weekly press conference Thursday.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has turned the sequester into a campaign issue, as he and his surrogates attacked Obama for cutting the military last week while the president was making a campaign stop in Virginia, a key swing state and military hub.

The GOP rhetoric was backed up by a House bill Republicans passed that would force the White House to explain the cuts to Congress, and with a hearing in the Armed Services Committee where defense executives testified about how bad the cuts would be for the defense industry.

The GOP message was boosted with a new study from the Aerospace Industries Association that found 2 million jobs could be lost from sequestration in the defense and domestic sectors.

Democrats didn’t take the attacks lying down, responding to the accusations by pointing out that many Republicans voted for the Budget Control Act that set sequestration in motion.

They’ve argued that Republicans care more about protecting tax cuts for millionaires than about the cuts to domestic and defense spending.

“The way to avoid the fiscal cliff is to do what we've been trying to do now for more than a year, and that is get a small amount of revenue by the way that the American people agree should happen,” Reid said Tuesday. “We have to have a balanced deal.”

Defense analysts say that Democrats hold an advantage in the leverage game going into the lame-duck session because the defense cuts will occur and the Bush tax-rates will expire if Congress does nothing, two outcomes Republicans are more concerned with stopping.

That gives Democrats little incentive to act on sequestration before November unless Republicans are willing to increase taxes.

However, Obama and congressional Democrats agreed to extend all the Bush-era tax rates in 2010, despite tough talk to the contrary.

Regardless, with Republicans accusing Democrats of harming the military and national security and Democrats accusing Republicans of protecting the wealthy, both sides have a message with sequestration they can campaign on into the election.

While defense-focused lawmakers like McKeon, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) have said repeatedly that the cuts must be dealt with before the election.

There have been calls to find a one-year deal — or even something shorter — to give businesses certainty that the cuts won’t be coming Jan. 2 when sequestration hits in.

But the sequester cuts have been coupled with the Bush-era tax rates, analysts say, making a short term fix difficult to achieve.

House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he agreed with Murray not to extend any of the Bush tax rates when given the choice between “all or nothing.”

He was less willing to commit when it came to the sequestration cuts.

“I think that’s a more flexible thing,” Smith said in an interview on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program that will air Sunday.

“We’re reaching the point where one of the wise courses of action is saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do this,’” he said. “We still have to deal with the deficit, but we’re not going to put a gun to head of economy.”


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