Obama said the sequester ‘will not happen.’ That doesn’t change anything.

October 23, 2012

Obama said during Monday night's debate that the sequester "will not happen." Republicans say they were taken aback by the comment, and there's been speculation that this could weaken his bargaining power during the fiscal cliff negotiations. 

But the remark doesn't fundamentally change anything about the debate that's on the horizon. Democrats and Republicans have been essentially united on the sequester: Neither party wants those cuts to happen, and there's fairly broad agreement that Congress will figure out some way to prevent them from being enacted in full. "No one wants it to happen," White House senior adviser David Plouffe told reporters Monday night. "No one thinks it should happen."

If anything, Obama was simply asserting with greater confidence that Congress will, in fact, manage to come up with some kind of fiscal bargain that undoes the sequester. At the same time, he's insisted over the past year that not just any deal will do, using the veto threat to insist that the bargain must include revenues and deficit reduction, not just repealing the sequester cuts.

And that's Obama's biggest threat — and the Republicans' biggest fear: not the automatically triggered sequester cuts, which no one wants, but the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which the president insists must be included in any fiscal cliff deal under threat of a veto. 

That said, how Congress actually gets there is unclear: All we're hearing right now are the alarm bells about the apocalyptic impact of the sequester and the rest of the fiscal cliff, while neither party is pushing publicly for a deal yet. That could explain why so many were surprised when Obama asserted that a resolution would happen.

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Sarah Kliff | October 23, 2012