5 political truths about the sequester

February 22, 2013

In seven days, the sequester -- the this-will-never-really-happen set of automatic cuts in federal spending -- is set to kick in. Given that everyone in Washington expects the sequester to happen, it's worth detailing what we know about the politics of it one week before it hits.

Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy and a (budget?) ax. Washington Post photo.
Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy and a (budget?) ax. Washington Post photo.

Our list of "what we knows" is below. What did we miss? (And make sure to read Wonkblog's comprehensive breakdown of every sequester-related question you could possibly ever have.)

1. The policy debate is over...if it ever got started. It seems that after Republicans gave into President Obama on the fiscal cliff and then kicked the can down the road -- worst metaphor ever! -- on the debt ceiling, there was zero appetite for any more deals on debt and spending. And, while the Obama team insists that they have done everything they can to try to bring a deal about to sidestep the sequester, it's been clear from their actions over the last 10 days or so that they had begun to plot how to win the political fight.

2. Obama starts the post-March 1 debt/spending debate in stronger shape. New numbers from the Pew Research Center show that 49 percent of Americans would blame congressional Republicans more for the sequester while 31 percent would lay the blame at President Obama's feet.  Those numbers are rightly understood as a stand-in for the approval ratings of Obama and the GOP since people don't really have any sense of what the sequester is or will do. (More on that shortly.) It's unclear whether, as (or if) people get more informed about sequester, the blame game shifts -- with the president coming in line for more scorn. Republicans certainly hope so but, having never had a moment like this one, it's very tough to predict what the post-March 1 landscape will look like.

3. Most people aren't paying any attention to the sequester. That Pew poll showed that just 27 percent of people said that they had heard "a lot" about the "automatic spending cuts" occurring on March 1.  More people -- 29 percent -- said they had heard "nothing at all" about it. Contrast that level of dis/un-interest with what the public said they knew a week before the debt ceiling hit in the summer of 2011 -- in a Pew poll conducted roughly two weeks before we hit the ceiling, 50 percent said they had heard "a lot" about it.

4. And/but Republicans are paying more attention. Thirty six percent of self-identified Republicans say they have heard  "a lot" about the automatic cuts as compared to 23 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of independents. Among that group of Republicans paying close attention to sequestration, a majority (54 percent) want the cuts to simply go into effect while 38 percent favor delaying them. Those numbers make a very clear political case for why Republican elected officials won't be cutting any last minute deals with the White House.

5. The new, new deadline for doing something is March 27. That's when the continuing resolution -- that little thing that, you know, funds the federal government, runs out. Most smart Capitol Hill types are pointing to those last few weeks of March as the time when the two sides will come to the negotiating table to try to avert the remaining sequester cuts with a package of spending cuts and closing of tax loopholes. And don't forget that the debt ceiling is going to need to be raised (or not) by May.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake | February 22, 2013