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GOP Feels a Shift, Likes Dynamic on Sequester

Ready for the next battle, they see Democrats left holding bag

Despite early protestations against a sequester many members voted for, congressional Republicans are preparing to go past a March 1 deadline that would trigger across-the-board spending cuts without agreeing to alternative legislation.

At the annual Senate GOP retreat earlier this week, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., delivered a message to the conference that standing strong on the scheduled spending cuts would be preferable to a deal to replace it that included any revenue. Boehner said he believed Republicans had shifted the power dynamic from 2012’s fiscal cliff fight and that Democrats would be left holding the bag if Congress couldn’t agree to a deal to avert the painful cuts.

“No Budget, No Pay was partly an effort to shift the battlefield from the debt limit to the president’s sequester. Now that we’ve successfully changed the battlefield, it’s time to fight the battle. And we need to fight it together,” Boehner told senators in the closed-door meeting, according to prepared text provided to CQ Roll Call. “The goal to me is pretty straightforward: the president’s sequester should be replaced with better spending cuts that help put us on a path to a balanced budget within a decade.”

According to a Republican source, McConnell spoke up during Boehner’s remarks on the sequester, urging colleagues to draw a line in the sand on the issue. The Kentucky Republican echoed the sentiment he has been repeating almost daily on the Senate floor, that the bipartisan tax deal approved at the beginning of the year that raised $650 billion in revenue was sufficient and any future legislation should be cuts-only.

With billions in spending cuts already written in law from 2011’s Budget Control Act, some see Republicans as having little incentive to come to the table in a recess-shortened February, if at all. From a sheer logistics perspective, both the Senate and the House are in recess the week of Feb. 18.

And, though GOP aides insist it has not been openly discussed, there could be political advantage if Republicans let Congress pass the delayed sequester deadline. Some of the states that get the most federal discretionary money, defense or domestic, also are home to some of the 2014 cycle’s vulnerable Democrats, Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Warner of Virginia and Mark Udall of Colorado. Hagan, however, starts out in a weaker position than Udall or Warner.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract breaking down federal spending by state, Virginia in 2009, for example, was the top recipient of federal defense spending dollars, North Carolina was 13th and Colorado 16th. In nondefense spending, Virginia ranked eighth and North Carolina 10th.

Udall said he did not believe Republicans would view the sequester fight through that sort of political lens and said that if lawmakers could not agree on a suitable replacement for the sequester, they should at least attempt to give more authority to the relevant federal agencies to decide where cuts might be more effectively made.

“Of course I’m concerned,” Udall said. “If we’re going to have a sequester, let’s give the agencies — both the [Defense Department] and the domestic side — flexibility to apply those cuts in ways that are more scalpel-like rather than blunt.”

When asked whether Republicans could take political advantage of going past the March deadline, Udall added: “I refuse to believe my colleagues in the other party are thinking that way. I’m certainly not thinking that way.”

Democrats, led by President Barack Obama, have said they will not agree to any deal that is not balanced between further cuts and revenue.

But they might have to start plotting a Plan B if the Republicans are content to let the sequester kick in. One such option could be trying to reapportion the appropriated top line cuts in a way that is more targeted — an idea that has been floated by House and Senate Republicans who perhaps are operating under the assumption the cuts would kick in. This would make No. 2 Senate Democrat Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who serves as the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, an especially important figure in the fight to relitigate cuts that already have been agreed to.

When asked Thursday whether he was considering such a back-up plan, Durbin said, “The president has suggested a balanced approach to avoid the sequester, which I support.”

Democrats are reluctant to talk about, or even pursue, such an option because it would guarantee the cuts would take effect without any revenue balance, sources said.

But conversations are beginning on how to deal with the serious economic effects of the sequester and the political ramifications for lawmakers in either party if the cuts take place.

“There are conversations about what we can do to avert the sequester outright and on how it could be managed if or when it kicks in,” one senior Democratic aide said.

McConnell in his closed-door meeting with his members earlier this week perhaps simplified the current situation best: “Nobody said cutting spending would be easy,” he said, according to a GOP leadership aide. “We need to fight.”

The biggest question is how many more rounds lawmakers can afford to go.

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