Republicans have been been clear that they do not regard deep, looming cuts to defense and domestic programs — the enforcement mechanism at the heart of last year’s debt limit agreement — as a reason to compromise with Democrats and put real tax revenues into the mix of cuts and reforms required to reduce deficits over time.
But in recent weeks they’ve taken things a step further. They’ve disavowed the so-called “sequester” altogether and handed full responsibility for its existence to President Obama — despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of them voted to implement it last August.
“It was the president who came up with the sequester because he didn’t want the debt limit to get in the way of his campaign,” said House Speaker John Boehner at his weekly press availability last week. “Now these cuts are looming and he’s nowhere to be found.”
In a private meeting with his conference, Boehner said the sequester exists, “for one reason: because the President of the United States didn’t want to deal with the debt limit again before the presidential election. Because the president didn’t want to be inconvenienced, he came up with the sequester.”
The history here is much different and much more complicated. Boehner himself touched off the debt limit standoff by demanding that Congress match each dollar provided in new borrowing authority with a dollar of cuts to federal spending. President Obama was content to use the debt limit as a forcing mechanism to bring down 10-year deficits, but he wanted a deal that included tax revenue, and one that raised the debt limit enough to prevent the brinksmanship from returning ahead of the election. In the end, the parties were only able to agree on $1 trillion worth of cuts to discretionary spending. Under the Boehner rule that would’ve teed up a new debt limit crisis in the middle of the 2012 election. So leaders of both parties agreed to set up a process that would allow Congress to fast track legislation to reduce the deficit, ideally by at least $1.2 trillion. To make sure members came to agreement, both parties, including Boehner, agreed to include an enforcement mechanism that Republicans and Democrats found equally unappealing.
This ultimately resulted in what we now know as the sequester. But before Congress and the White House settled on this particular configuration, they batted around a bunch of other ideas. Among others, Republicans tried to include partial repeal of the health care law, and Democrats tried to include the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. The sequester facing the country today was the result of a long bipartisan negotiation to avoid last year’s default crisis and prevent one from re-emerging in the chaos of an election year.
Back in November, Boehner accepted partial ownership.
“I would feel bound by it,” he said. “It was part of the agreement. And so either we succeed or we are in the sequester. The sequester is ugly. Why? Because we don’t want anybody to go there. That’s why we have to succeed.”
Now that a bipartisan agreement to avoid “going there” appears out of reach, Republicans are trying to wash their hands of their role in creating the sequester — even ones who voted for the debt limit deal.
For the moment the looming cuts haven’t broken through as a driving issue in a campaign driven largely by more tangible economic and budget issues. But Obama’s taking it upon himself to rebut the charge before key constituencies.
“[T]here are a number of Republicans in Congress who don’t want you to know that most of them voted for these cuts,” Obama told Veterans of Foreign Wars last week. “Now they’re trying to wriggle out of what they agreed to do. Instead of making tough choices to reduce the deficit, they’d rather protect tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans, even if it risks big cuts in our military. And I’ve gotta tell you VFW, I disagree. If the choice is between tax cuts that the wealthiest Americans don’t need, and funding our troops that [we] definitely need to keep our country strong, I will stand with our troops every single time.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.