Skip to content

Senate GOP Divided on Sequester Alternative

A split among Senate Republicans over what to propose as a substitute for the sequester has complicated plans for Senate votes this week on competing GOP and Democratic deficit reduction proposals.

A GOP plan to grant federal agencies more flexibility to implement $85 billion in fiscal 2013 spending cuts worries some Republicans, who fear the White House would use the measure to circumvent congressional budgeting authority.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., filed cloture Tuesday on a motion to proceed to a Democratic alternative (S 388) to the automatic budget cuts scheduled to go into effect Friday. Republicans are expected to introduce their alternative Wednesday, if their differences are resolved over whether to give the Obama administration more flexibility to make the $85 billion in fiscal 2013 cuts or embrace an alternative plan of spending cuts similar to sequester replacement legislation the House passed last year.

The cloture vote on the Democratic plan is expected Thursday.

Reid’s plan includes a $110 billion proposal to replace the automatic cuts with a package that would increase taxes on persons with incomes of more than $1 million, eliminate some farm payments and restructure defense cuts.

But some Republicans have qualms about a proposal by Sens. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., to give the administration flexibility to distribute the scheduled spending cuts. “There are some members of our conference who are suspicious of the administration taking advantage of such flexibility to punish their political enemies,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said some Republicans want to vote on an alternative roster of spending cuts similar to sequester replacement legislation the House passed last year.

After a fractious caucus meeting Tuesday, McConnell said the GOP may want to offer multiple proposals.

Nothing doing, said Reid. “The agreement was, we would have a bill and they would have a bill. That’s fair enough.” Reid accused Republicans of “standing in the way of a solution” by opposing any revenue increase.

Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and Toomey, chairman of the conservative Republican Senate Steering Committee, said they are trying to work out a compromise their colleagues can embrace. Toomey said the measure would allow the administration to shift the burden of the cuts among nondefense programs but would not permit shifting between defense and nondefense accounts. He brushed aside criticism that the result would be more power for President Barack Obama at the expense of the legislative branch.

“We should give the authority to Obama. He doesn’t want it,” one senior GOP senator said.

But some Republicans question any idea of handing more power to the White House at the expense of congressional appropriators and authorizing committees. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he prefers “regular order.” And Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a member of the Budget Committee, said she has doubts about letting Obama tailor cuts as he see fit.

The GOP reservations are shared by some Democrats, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan and Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland. “Congress should not be handing the power of the purse to the executive branch,” Levin said.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said a provision giving the Pentagon and other agencies more leeway to deal with cuts could be part of the next continuing resolution. The current stopgap fiscal 2013 spending bill (PL 112-178) expires March 27.

“Legally and technically, I guess it is possible, but it is not what we’re planning to do,” said House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke urged senators to replace “sharp, frontloaded spending cuts” with a plan to reduce the budget deficit “more gradually in the near term but more substantially in the longer run.” During a Tuesday hearing, he said legislation allowing agency flexibility could permit “more efficient allocation of the cuts” but that the cuts could still harm the economy.

Ben Weyl, Sarah Chacko, Emily Holden and Kerry Young contributed to this report.