WSJ: Dems Caving on Sequestration, Moving to Continuing Resolution Battle?

Posted: Feb 25, 2013 2:18 PM

Although the president is still out on the campaign trail sounding the hysterical alarm over proportionally miniscule sequester cuts, the Wall Street Journal reports that Beltway Democrats are already shifting their focus to the next manufactured crisis of their own making:

Already looking past the current budget impasse gripping the capital, congressional leaders are quietly considering a deal to avert a government shutdown next month—but at the cost of prolonging across-the-board spending cuts. Attention is beginning to shift from Friday, when the broad cuts known as the sequester kick in, to the next budget deadline: Congress must pass a so-called continuing resolution by the end of March to keep funding government operations. Senior aides to House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) have begun discussing a bill being prepared by House Republicans to fund government operations through September. Republicans want the bill to extend operating funds at the lower levels set to kick in Friday and to give more flexibility to the Pentagon to manage its cuts.  

Given the current balance of power in Washington, this comes close to a best-case-scenario outcome for the GOP.  They'd help ease some of the sequester's defense cuts while steering the next six months of federal spending, based on the lower baseline that kicks in on Friday.  The White House isn't happy about the reduced level of spending increases (remember, the sequester doesn't actually cut year-over-year spending in 2013; it slows the rate of growth), but some Democrats are acknowledging that Republicans may have the upper hand in shaping the next Continuing Resolution:

A White House official said the administration wouldn’t go along with such a plan to extend the lower spending levels. And Democrats are insisting that the House GOP bill also give new latitude to domestic agencies as well as the Pentagon. But an aide to Senate Democratic leaders said such a measure might be politically difficult for the lawmakers to oppose, lest they bear the blame for shutting down the government. “There’s an emerging consensus that it would be a difficult battle to have,” said the Senate leadership aide. “I don’t think we could force a shutdown.”

Last month, I urged Congressional Republicans to avert an ugly brawl over the debt limit, leave sequestration intact, then insist on lower spending in the Continuing Resolution.  It appears as though they're prepared to do exactly that.  GOP lawmakers gave the president a clean, temporary debt limit increase to strip away his "full faith and credit" scare tactics, they're poised to maintain current law and allow the president's sequester to go into effect, and they're gearing up to use that reduced baseline to hold down spending through the end of the fiscal year.  Eighty-five billion dollars isn't much in the scheme of things, but it's something.  Republicans will pass an acceptable CR out of the House, then it will be incumbent upon Senate Democrats to act.  If the leadership aide quoted in the Journal is representative of his conference's mentality, Democrats are worried about losing the blame game over causing a government shut down.  Republicans could accurately argue that they've passed legislation to keep the federal government open for business for the rest of the year, based on the lower output threshold established by the president's own sequester proposal.   How would Democrats justify a shut down based on a demand for more spending?  Contributing to the Left's jitters is a nagging concern that the sequester cuts will arrive at the end of the week, and few voters will notice or care:

“The good news is, the world doesn’t end March 2. The bad news is, the world doesn’t end March 2,” said Emily Holubowich, a Washington health-care lobbyist who leads a coalition of 3,000 nonprofit groups fighting the cuts. “The worst-case scenario for us is the sequester hits and nothing bad really happens. And Republicans say: See, that wasn’t so bad.” In the long partisan conflict over government spending, the sequester is where the rubber meets the road. Obama is betting Americans will be outraged by the abrupt and substantial cuts to a wide range of government services, from law enforcement to food safety to public schools. And he is hoping they will rise up to demand what he calls a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction that replaces some cuts with higher taxes. But if voters react with a shrug, congressional Republicans will have won a major victory in their campaign to shrink the size of government. Instead of cancelling the sequester, the GOP will likely push for more.

It wouldn't be a "major victory" in terms of real dollars -- we've already established that.  But it could be a significant messaging boon to Republicans, and may also whet the public's professed appetite for across-the-board spending reductions (this disheartening caveat notwithstanding).  Obama also runs the risk of falling victim to 'boy who cried wolf' syndrome, wherein Americans become more skeptical of future predictions of impending cut-related doom.  Which brings us to the next stanza in this tug of war: The upcoming budget season.  All of the irritating cliff-style showdowns over the last few years are directly attributable to the piecemeal, crisis-to-crisis governance spawned by the government refusal to pass budgets.  House Republicans will again adhere to the law and pass a budget this spring (and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan says it will reflect the lower sequester baseline over the full budget window).  The GOP has also ramped up public pressure on Senate Democrats to offer a budget for the first time in four years, introducing the "No Budget, No Pay" maneuver last month.  Harry Reid's clan might be sensing that their budget abdication strategy is finally reaping diminishing returns; they claim they'll finally do their job for FY 2014.  If and when that happens, the GOP can finally compare and contrast the two parties' competing visions and priorities based on actual proposals -- which is precisely what Democrats have been deliberately avoiding since 2009.  Should Republicans manage to hold firm on Obama's sequester cuts, adhere to the new baseline through September in the subsequent CR, then force Democrats back into normal budgetary order, those accomplishments would amount to be a fine piece of political jujiusu.  It's pretty pathetic that simply preventing minor spending reductions from being reversed and getting the ruling party to follow the law counts as 'achievements' these days, but such is life in year five of the Obama presidency.

UPDATE - Ed Morrissey points to the latest instance of the administration's moronic, manipulative "draconian!" rhetoric:  Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood warned of major disruptions in domestic flights...even though his department's budget is larger than it was last year, while the number of overall US flights is substantially down over the last decade.  He had no response when Candy Crowley called him out on this, other than to blame Republicans.  LaHood ostentatiously trumpeted his own nominal Republicanism to push these talking points -- a preview of the inevitable "bipartisan" Hagel Dance on defense cuts.