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Paul Ryan insists Republicans are ready to let the sequester happen

On Sunday morning, Rep. Paul Ryan reiterated a message that House Republicans have been trying to push since the fiscal cliff deal happened: The GOP is unafraid to let the sequester take effect.

“I think the sequester is going to happen,” Ryan said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"We think these sequesters will happen because the Democrats have opposed our efforts to replace those cuts with others–and they’ve offered no alternatives," Ryan said.

Ryan's comments reinforced House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) insistence that the sequester would be the biggest point of leverage for Republicans to extract the cuts that they want. And at least rhetorically speaking, other House GOP members have stepped into line. “I’m pretty sure it is going to happen now, and I would really like to see us fix the [continuing resolution]  problem,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told Politico last week. “I guess the feeling is until everybody feels enough pain, we’re not going to do the things that we really need to do. And that scares me.”

But as Ezra points out, the House GOP might not have nearly as much leverage as its leaders are claiming.

For one thing, it was only about two weeks ago that many of the House GOP's defense hawks were vocally opposing letting the defense cuts in the sequester take effect, rejecting the notion that Boehner had the sequester "in my back pocket" as a threat to use against Democrats. "I don’t support that,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Hill on Jan. 10. “You get into dangerous territory when you talk about using national security as a bargaining chip with the president.” Another House GOP member concurred, requesting anonymity in speaking to The Hill: “I believe the president wants sequestration cuts to occur, and the Republicans don’t...It is the No. 1 priority for the Armed Services Committee to stop."

That was before the House GOP retreat, however, after which the message on sequester seemed to become more unified. But given the genuine fears that rank-and-file GOP members expressed about the sequester's defense cuts, it's unclear whether House Republicans' message on the sequester is political bluster or a genuine threat. On the Romney campaign, Ryan vocally campaigned against the sequester's defense cuts and their impact on jobs and national security. “Now there’s one thing we’re going to have to deal with to make sure we protect jobs in Virginia and around America, and that is these devastating defense cuts that president Obama is promising," Ryan told a crowd in August.

What's more, the real impact of the sequester is becoming increasingly apparent as we approach the new March 1 deadline. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has already ordered the Pentagon to "prepare for the worst" by taking preliminary cost-cutting measures to training, operations and weapons maintenance. And the impact of the cuts on local military bases is crystallizing as well, adding to the pushback that legislators will feel back at home if they let the sequester take effect.

And while it's true that Congress still doesn't have an agreement on dealing with the sequester, or anything close to it, it could also just kick the can for a few weeks until March 27, when the Continuing Resolution to fund the government expires. The sequester would then get lumped into the bigger budget debate and Republicans would have a new point of leverage that they'd be arguably more likely to use than defense cuts: a government shutdown.