Boehner takes flak from Republican defense hawks on sequester stance

House Republican defense hawks are pushing back strongly against Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) claim that he has GOP support to allow steep automatic budget cuts to take effect if President Obama does not agree to replace them with other reductions.

Party leaders have for more than a year railed against the Pentagon portion of the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, but in an interview published Monday, Boehner pointed to the reductions as leverage and said he had significant Republican support, including from defense hawks, in his “back pocket.”

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Not so fast, two defense-minded House Republicans told The Hill.

“I don’t support that,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the Armed Services Committee whose district includes one of the nation’s largest military installations. “You get into dangerous territory when you talk about using national security as a bargaining chip with the president.”

In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Boehner said that during the late stages of the fiscal-cliff negotiations, it was the White House — and not Republican leaders — that demanded a delay in the $109 billion in scheduled 2013 cuts evenly split between defense and domestic discretionary programs. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Vice President Biden ultimately agreed to push the sequester back by two months, partially offsetting it with other spending cuts and leaving $85 billion in remaining 2013 cuts in place.

The Speaker suggested the sequester was a stronger leverage point for Republicans than the upcoming deadline to raise the debt ceiling, for which he is insisting on spending cuts and reforms that exceed the amount in new borrowing authority for the Treasury. Therefore, the willingness of Republicans to allow the sequester to take effect is "as much leverage as we're going to get,” Boehner told the Journal.

Boehner’s comments marked a significant rhetorical shift from 2012, when it was Republicans who loudly demanded that the automatic defense cuts be replaced. The Speaker said the policy was the president’s idea and often cited the words of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who called the potential cuts “devastating” and warned they would hollow out the military.

In a fall debate, Obama promised the defense cuts would “not happen.” But in public statements, the White House and congressional Democrats took a stronger line, saying that while they opposed the sequester, they would not agree to replace it without new revenues or offsetting cuts that did not disproportionately burden the middle class.

The Speaker’s new stand could prompt an uproar among Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, who have opposed the defense sequester since it was included in the 2011 debt-ceiling deal as a way to force Congress to agree to a broader and more targeted deficit-reduction plan. The tension comes as Boehner is already seeking to mend wounds among conservatives after a bruising lame-duck session that culminated with 12 Republicans refusing to back his reelection as Speaker.

One defense-minded Republican lawmaker said Boehner’s position would amount to a broken promise to his conference.

“In order to get the Republican Conference to pass the debt-limit increase last time, he promised them sequestration would not go in place,” the Republican House member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “To be using sequestration and these defense cuts in the next debt-limit talks certainly is pretty bad déjà vu for the Republican Conference.”

The lawmaker doubted Boehner had the support he claimed from Republican defense hawks.

“I believe the president wants sequestration cuts to occur, and the Republicans don’t,” the member said. “It is the No. 1 priority for the Armed Services Committee to stop.”

Multiple aides and lawmakers said the concerns about Boehner’s latest strategy were a commonly held view among defense hawks.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), has helped lead the fight against the defense cuts. At one point in 2011, McKeon suggested he would be willing to raise taxes to avoid the sequester, a position he later walked back.

A committee aide said McKeon is on the same page as Boehner and understands the Speaker’s “great frustration” that the White House is refusing to put a solution forward.

“In the chairman’s view, this is a problem that took both chambers and both parties to create,” the aide said. “It’s going to take both chambers and both parties to resolve it, and ultimately it is the commander in chief who needs to actually propose a concrete solution to the sequester crisis — and not wait for the last minute and hope that congressional negotiations can resolve the issue.”

In spring 2012, as it became increasingly clear that sequestration wasn’t going to be dealt with until the end of the year, McKeon said in an interview that he would “strongly consider” voting against the debt-limit deal if he could go back in time.

“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, referring to the congressional panel that tried unsuccessfully to reach a deficit-reduction agreement.

“Well, obviously it didn’t work, so now we find ourselves in a very difficult situation,” he said last year.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel declined to elaborate on the Speaker's comments.

“President Obama needs to understand that out-of-control Washington spending is throttling economic growth, costing jobs and consigning our children to a diminished standard of living," Steel said. "It is a direct assault on the American Dream, and we are determined to force him to act.”

The Speaker is likely to find more support from some Tea Party-aligned conservatives, who have said they would rather see the sequester take effect than forgo spending cuts entirely.

In the Senate, at least one prominent defense hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), adopted similar thinking to Boehner when the fiscal-cliff negotiations had stalled late last month.

Graham said that he was willing to “let it go through” if the alternative was a deal that raised taxes without addressing entitlements.

“I just think that I’m not going to make bad policy to try to avoid sequestration,” Graham said. “It’s a terrible idea, but we’re not going to use sequestration to start making bad tax policy and do a deal that doesn’t reform entitlements.”

Boehner is facing similar pushback from the left for another claim in the Journal article: that Obama’s liberal base will pressure him to cut a deal on the sequester rather than have its domestic cuts take effect. Liberals have criticized the domestic cuts for hitting Medicare providers, HIV/AIDS programs and a fund for first-responders and survivors of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In interviews, progressives said they opposed the sequester cuts on a number of grounds but would not trade them for the prize Republicans want: benefit cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“If Speaker Boehner thinks Democrats will support slashing the retirement of middle-class Americans in order to avoid the sequester, he is wrong,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We will see if he has the resolve to implement the Pentagon cuts his party opposes, but this is certain: progressives will not sacrifice American seniors to pay for another tax break for millionaires.”

A House Democratic aide said Boehner was simply “bluffing” and that his comments were a clear signal that he did not believe he could fight to the end on the debt ceiling, an issue on which Obama has vowed not to negotiate.

“He’s looking for a way to find leverage, but his conference would not let the sequester go into effect,” the aide said.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she did not support the sequester cuts, but she noted that it did not hurt Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. “Look, the sequester did protect a lot of the programs that we care about.”

Still, she added, “I think we can do better.”