Republicans want to make the sequester better. Why won’t Obama let them?

February 28, 2013

Both sides agree: The sequester is a stupid bill. "What the sequester does is it uses a meat cleaver approach to gut critical investments in things like education and national security and lifesaving medical research," President Obama told Virginians on Tuesday.


The last thing President Obama wants is control over the sequester. (AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)

Today, Senate Republicans are pushing legislation that would hand Obama a scalpel rather than a meat cleaver. The Toomey-Inhofe alternative would give the president discretion to allocate the sequester's cut largely as he sees fit. "If the agencies had the discretion, which they ought to have, [the sequester] can be done," one Republican senator told me. "But I'd hate to be the OMB director because it would be hard work."

This would be a huge transfer of power from the legislative branch to the executive branch.  And so it has its critics. “I’m not about to give up my constitutional obligations to the President of the United States," Sen. John McCain told Politico.

The irony is that the support for this proposal to transfer power to the White House is coming from Republicans, while its most committed opponents are Democrats -- including the White House, which hasn't asked for, and doesn't want, this authority. This afternoon, the White House issued a veto threat against Toomey-Inhofe. "This bill is an effort to shift the focus away from the need for the Congress to work toward a bipartisan compromise that would avoid sequestration," it said.

The White House argues that the Toomey-Inhofe bill doesn't give it quite as much control as its proponents say. For instance, it gives the president the power to move cuts from defense spending over to domestic spending, but not to do the reverse. And within the defense cuts, there are limitations on the president's authority. It forces him to largely abide by the spending decisions made in the National Defense Authorization Act -- a limitation it doesn't place on the domestic side. It also subjects whatever recommendations the White House does make to a congressional vote of disapproval.

But that's not the White House's real problem. The real problem is that the sequester remains the sequester. "It’s still 85 billion in cuts in [fiscal year] 13," says one White House staffer. "There’s no way around us having an economic opposition to taking out $85 billion in the next seven months. If the bill said you have to cut $85 billion but you have flexibility such that the cuts can be phased in, I don’t know what we’d do."

The other issue is political. If the White House is given authority for making the sequester's cuts, then it owns those cuts. Republicans who fought to keep the sequester in place could then have it both ways: They get the sequester, but they also get to attack the White House for the cuts made by the sequester. To borrow a term from the House GOP press releases, it truly turns the sequester into the "Obamaquester."

The bottom line is that Republican bill makes the sequester easier to live with, and the White House doesn't want the sequester to be easier to live with. The point of these poorly constructed spending cuts, in the White House's view, is that they're hard to live with, and that forces both sides to compromise. Making the sequester a bit better makes it much harder to replace.

There's been a lot of talk of "meat axes" and "across-the-board cuts" and the general idiocy of the sequester's design. But all that is, in the end, distraction. The fight over the GOP's sequester replacement is the clearest distillation yet of the two side's positions.

At this point, Republicans basically support the sequester because it's all spending cuts, but they want the cuts allocated more intelligently. The White House opposes the sequester because it hits the economy too hard in 2013 and because it doesn't include tax increases, and so they want it replaced with a compromise proposal. And so Republicans want to make the sequester a bit better and a lot more permanent while the White House opposes efforts to make the sequester better precisely because it would make it more permanent.

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