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Senate GOP divided on sequester plan

Senate GOP divided on sequester plan

Two days before $85 billion in automatic spending cuts hit the government, Senate Republicans are divided over a bill backed by their leadership that would replace the sequester.

The measure would require that $85 billion in spending be cut, but give President Obama more flexibility in manage the spending reductions than given by the sequester, which requires across-the-board cuts to nearly every part of every agency.

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But some Republicans fear it would help the White House use the cuts as a political weapon, while defense hawks worry the Pentagon would not escape harm.

Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamNew Lincoln Project ad goes after Lindsey Graham: 'A political parasite' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Justice Barrett joins court; one week until Election Day Biden's polling lead over Trump looks more comfortable than Clinton's MORE (R-S.C.) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainObama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions Mark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego More than 300 military family members endorse Biden MORE (R-Ariz.) said the plan doesn't address the damage that the sequester cuts would inflict on the military.

“I don’t care how flexible you want to be, the top-line numbers don’t add up to me on defense. That’s my problem," Graham said after a contentious GOP meeting where the plan was discussed.

Coming up with a favored approach is important as both sides try to win public support over how they are handling the sequester.

The Senate is expected to vote this week on rival legislative measures backed by Democrats and Republicans. While both bills are expected to fail, they could help give each party political cover.

Leaders on both sides will be looking at the vote count carefully, raising the stakes for Republicans to rally their members around one alternative.

So far, Senate Democrats look like the more unified side.

Most if not all Democrats are expected to support their conference’s $110 billion sequester replacement bill that would phase in a new minimum tax on those making more than $1 million a year, close corporate tax loopholes, end direct farm payments and delay defense cuts.

Such unity isn’t evident around the likely GOP alternative offered by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' Trump excoriates Sasse over leaked audio Has Congress captured Russia policy? MORE (R-Tenn.) and supported by GOP leaders. The bill, which would give Obama more leeway in carrying out sequestration, was discussed Tuesday in the Senate Republican conference meeting.

In general, Republicans more comfortable with defense cuts supported this effort, while hawks like McCain and Graham were skeptical.

Opponents complain the plan would cede Congress's power of the purse to the president. Others say it does nothing to address the sequester’s damaging cuts to defense and national security.

"I've never seen so much passion about something that is not going to pass," Corker said Tuesday after the party’s weekly lunch.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court Trump blasts Obama speech for Biden as 'fake' after Obama hits Trump's tax payments White House hoping for COVID-19 relief deal 'within weeks': spokeswoman MORE (R-Ky.) acknowledged Tuesday that the party might have to offer more than one sequester alternative amendment on the Senate floor, if Democrats consent to multiple votes.

"Speaking for myself, I would be happy to give the president more flexibility and rely on the agency heads to portion the spending reductions in different ways," McConnell said. "There are some members of our conference who are suspicious that the administration would take advantage of such flexibility to punish their political enemies."

"We'll see how many votes we'll have. That's up for discussion," McConnell said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Justice Barrett joins court; one week until Election Day GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg Democratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  MORE (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he would only allow one GOP bill. He has set the Senate up for Thursday votes.

The plan from Toomey and Corker would give the Obama administration more power to choose which federal programs and activities will be slashed to meet the $85 billion target.

The flexibility would apply equally to domestic and defense spending, Corker said, in contrast to an earlier proposal floated by Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Dems want hearing on DOD role on coronavirus vaccine | US and India sign data-sharing pact | American citizen kidnapped in Niger Senate Democrats want hearing on Pentagon vaccine effort Governors urge negotiators to include top priorities in final defense policy bill MORE (R-Okla.) that would have just given flexibility over Pentagon cuts.

Graham said that he would support a deficit grand bargain that raises $600 billion in revenues in exchange for massive entitlement reform. Such a bargain would presumably restore all nine years of defense cuts on the horizon.

The GOP conference is also weighing a proposal from Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteBottom line The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Senate makes SCOTUS nominee Barrett a proxy for divisive 2020 Senate Republicans scramble to put Trump at arm's length MORE (R-N.H.) to replace the sequester cuts with a reduction in the overall federal workforce through attrition. McCain and Graham support the Ayotte approach.

Toomey said his proposal preserves the magnitude of the sequester cuts because the nation's budget situation demands it.

He said “given the disastrous fiscal situation we are in, we’ve got to support these cuts.”

The Pennsylvania senator said that the proposal could be redesigned to include a provision giving Congress a final vote to disapprove a presidential sequester plan.

He argued that after Oct. 1, the remaining eight years of automatic spending cuts are accomplished through lower budget caps, not the seizing of funds known as sequestration, so congressional power isn't ceded for long.

Corker concurred, arguing the plan "is the best solution for the next seven months. After that it moves to the appropriations process."

Once the sequester takes effect, supporters of the idea said, the flexibility bill could gain traction and could be difficult for Obama to reject.

Democrats showed no signs of supporting any of the GOP ideas.

Sen. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinMichigan to pay 0M to victims of Flint water crisis Unintended consequences of killing the filibuster Inspector general independence must be a bipartisan priority in 2020 MORE (Mich.), the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, blasted the GOP approach as passing the buck to the White House.

“I think it’s a mistake in general to give the power of the purse to the president and say, ‘Here’s a pot of money; spend it as you wish,' ” Levin said. “That kind of, what’s called ‘flexibility,’ is really an abdication of what the responsibilities of the Congress are.”

Corker said that at this stage, the GOP proposal and a separate Democratic sequester replacement bill that raises taxes will fail in Senate votes this week.

“I can’t imagine either bill is going to pass,” he said. “That’s why I’m booking a flight to head out of town Thursday night.”

This story was posted on Feb. 26 at 4:46 p.m. and has been updated.