When Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., met with the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board last week, she said reasonable people could pass a bill to apply $85 billion in sequester cuts more surgically. Too bad she's a member of Congress.
When Editorial Page Editor John Diaz asked whether she considers the scale of the cuts to be "reasonable and doable," she answered, "Yes, I do."
Alas, the Democrats' top budget man, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., believes that cutting $85 billion out of a $3.6 trillion budget is unthinkable, even to slow the growth of the $16 trillion national debt. Asked about proposals to redo the cuts so they target waste, he told CNN, "Rearranging cuts is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."
President Barack Obama wants the cuts to be as painful as possible. In Newport News, Va., on Tuesday to speak before defense workers who might be laid off or furloughed, the president said, "Instead of cutting out the government spending we don't need -- wasteful programs that don't work, special interest tax loopholes and tax breaks -- 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." Yet he doesn't want the authority to target wasteful programs.
In Washington, Speier said, "Russian roulette is a favored pastime."
Then there's finger-pointing. House Speaker John Boehner likes to blame the Senate for not passing an alternative measure after the GOP House passed two bills to replace the across-the-board sequester cuts last year. But those bills included a poison pill; with their focus on cutting discretionary spending, they didn't have a prayer of passing the Democratic-led Senate.
Senate Democrats have a bill that smartly goes after farm subsidies but wrongly includes the "Buffett rule" to impose a minimum 30 percent tax rate on top investors. That bill won't pass both houses, either.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., told me he is a co-sponsor of the House version of the Senate bill because Republicans have to meet Democrats "halfway." The 2012 election, the former prosecutor explained, was like a jury trial. Obama ran on the "Buffett rule." Obama won, so Democrats should go for it.
But that bill won't fly. And the president also ran on deficit reduction. Here's his chance.
Senate Republicans are expected to introduce legislation Thursday to give the president the authority to make smarter sequester cuts -- whether Obama wants it or not. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he won't vote for such a bill. Reid, too, invoked the Titanic's deck chairs. To D.C. Dems, smart cuts are analogous to hitting an iceberg.
That's why Republicans will let the bad cuts happen if they must. They know that if Washington cannot pull off these modest cuts -- already included in the Budget Control Act -- they must abandon any notion of fiscal discipline.
Timing worked against Republicans during the fiscal cliff negotiations; they could agree to Obama's tax increases or to bigger automatic increases slated to begin Jan. 1, so they took the better deal.
The March 1 sequester start date works for the GOP. Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, told me: "We are going to make these cuts. We can do it (Obama's way), or we can do it a smarter way."