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Senate’s Sequester Bills Look Toward Compromise

Behind the rhetorical war over who is to blame for the sequester, Senate Democrats and Republicans are putting forward proposals that could be the foundation of a future deal to replace the automatic spending cuts likely to take effect Friday.

Lawmakers have long been targeting the March 27 deadline for keeping the government funded as the more pivotal cutoff date for action. But Senate leaders this week will vote on dueling sequester replacement packages that appear designed to test the bipartisan appeal of their general frameworks.

Meanwhile, both sides are bracing for the Obama administration to ratchet up the pressure by front-loading the effects of the sequester during the month of March. The thinking is that creating instantaneous pain that affects the public at large will pressure the GOP to negotiate by month’s end.

The White House effort to play up the dramatic effects of the scheduled across-the-board cuts began in earnest Feb. 22, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appearing at a White House press briefing.

“What I’m trying to do is wake up members of Congress on the Republican side,” LaHood told reporters. “As a former [GOP] member of Congress of 14 years, I urge my former colleagues to address this issue when they get back next Monday and to work on a long-term, balanced solution to our deficit challenges.”

LaHood said that as part of $600 billion in cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration’s fiscal 2013 budget, 100 air traffic control facilities at smaller airports would close, midnight shifts at 60 other towers would end and the “vast majority” of the FAA’s 47,000 employees would be furloughed one day per pay period. Many expect similarly dramatic proclamations from agencies and departments in the days and weeks ahead, especially as congressional committee heads demand more answers about where cuts will be made to satisfy the law.

The fight over the sequester is just the most recent example of the distrust between the White House and Congress that has marred the continuing deficit reduction fight. Senate Democrats are still bruised by the fiscal-cliff fight that ended in 2012. According to multiple sources, Senate Democrats were more than willing to go over the cliff and let taxes on all Americans rise temporarily to gain maximum leverage against Republicans in resolving issues beyond taxes, such as the sequester.

But the White House, like at almost every other critical budget juncture since 2011, wanted to avert the cliff before the deadline. Now, Republicans say they gave the White House $600 billion in tax increases and they’re unwilling to raise more revenue. Democratic sources on the Hill privately worry that the political pain caused by the sequester will not be enough to force the kind of deal they believe they could have gotten after going over the cliff.

Although Senate Democrats will take cues from the White House on how to proceed after the sequester kicks in, they are set this week to vote on a plan that replaces one year of the sequester, or $110 billion of cuts, with a 50-50 split of targeted cuts and new revenue. That includes eliminating direct payments to farmers — a provision that received bipartisan support in the Senate in 2012.

Although Democrats feel confident about their bipartisan approach, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., already stripped the direct payment provision from legislation during the fiscal-cliff debate, and he likely would not support such a measure now. According to the Farm Service Agency, 42,027 Kentucky farms received a historic, cumulative $42,962,487 in direct payments in 2011.

“We all feel very strongly that, just as we did in the first two months of replacing the sequestration, the 50-50 is a fair and balanced way to move forward,” Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the day the caucus released its framework. “I don’t think the Republicans are going to come back … and want to be responsible for the devastating consequences of sequestration of going into place.”

Republicans, on the other hand, are preparing to move forward with a plan that would give the president the authority to reapportion the prescribed cuts as long as he hit the same top lines and did not shift the ratio of defense-to-nondefense cuts. Several GOP senators have introduced some iteration of this framework — from James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma to Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania — and GOP Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told a St. Louis radio show he believed ceding this power to the White House would be a feasible solution.

“The compromise is to give the president authority that he should be willing to use as the leader of the country to target the cuts rather than to take the cuts on every line item,” Blunt said Feb. 21. “These spending cuts are going to occur, and they should occur, and they should be done in the right way instead of the wrong way.”

A Senate Republican aide confirmed that rank-and-file members are pushing for the flexibility legislation as long as the administration cannot make the cuts more defense-heavy.

Of course, there could be a downside to ceding that sort of authority to President Barack Obama: He could focus his cuts on programs near and dear to Republicans. But at least the onus and therefore the political ownership would be on the White House and Democrats, Republicans believe.

As for whether such a measure could get House backing, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, left the door open.

“If that’s what they do, we’ll be happy to take a look,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.

Paul M. Krawzak and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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