What to look for next in the sequester wars

Now that the sequester is set to hit, and both sides are settling in for a long, grueling political fight, they are eying the government shutdown deadline of March 27th as the next deadline around which to craft their strategies.

At his presser today, President Obama hinted at the strategy Dems will adopt, saying that he would support it if Republicans agreed to keep funding the government at the level agreed on in the 2011 Budget Control Act. “If the bill that arrives on my desk is reflective of the commitments that we previously made, then obviously I would sign it,” Obama said.

Because the sequester is operative, any bill that temporarily funds the government past March 27th would be funding it at lower spending levels — but with the automatic across the board reductions in place. As Brian Beutler notes, this tips the hand on the Dem strategy: The challenge would be for House Republicans to pass such an extension, and if the pain of the sequester begins to bite, the pressure might be on them to agree to a package of new revenues and replacement cuts rather than continue the automatic cuts. Of course, alternatively, Republicans might try to hold on and continue the sequester, in hopes that eventually they’d prevail.

And here’s where it gets particularly interesting. As one senior House Democratic aide describes the thinking to me, for such a strategy to work for Dems, they’d have to deny Republicans any support in the House for any funding extension — even as the President has vowed to support whatever extension does pass. Here’s why: If the pressure is on the GOP leadership to pass the extension with only Republicans, they can’t afford to lose the support of too many of them. Dems are hoping that as the sequester takes hold, individual Republicans will begin to balk, and will want additional funding for various projects or programs in their districts.

This is why Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that the lower funding levels would be a non-starter for House Dems — though the president would support whatever the House passes, Democrats will try to force Republicans to make a deal first.

“As the sequester continues for the next few weeks, hopefully we’ll see House Republicans begin to hear feedback from within their own districts about certain programs that are being cut which require additional funding,” the aide tells me, citing as examples Justice Department grants for cops, grants for military bases, and other things. “We anticipate that some will say, `This needs to be funded at a higher level,’ and with some Republicans pushing for higher funding, they won’t be unified.”

If this happens, and if two dozen or more Republicans start to balk, the hope is Republicans will be forced to deal with Democrats in order to pass some kind of compromise funding out of the House — with Democratic support — which could include new revenues, or at least funding at a higher level than the sequestered-level funding has been.

It’s hard to say whether this will work. There will be pressure on individual Republicans to hold the line and stick with the sequester. This process will be heavily influenced by how public opinion greets the sequester in individual districts and how lawmakers react to that. But Dems are hopeful. After all, there are now several precedents for Democrats denying House Republicans any support, rendering them unable to pass things on their own, and ultimately being forced to compromise with Dems as a result. We’ll see.

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UPDATE: One additional point. Even if the sequester takes some time to be felt in districts, Dems are hopeful that groups within districts who are worried about getting hit by the cuts will go to their GOP members of Congress to tell them that the sequester is a real problem for them — hopefully making it harder for these Republicans to support continuing funding at lower levels. There’s also the possibility that some Republicans who don’t think the sequester is good enough could also deny support. The key for Dems is to maintain unity against any lower level funding extension.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | March 1, 2013