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What Sequester? Members See Little Political Fallout So Far

At the White House and in the Capitol, sequestration has nearly faded from view as an issue, with no compromise in sight to roll back automatic spending cuts that were supposed to bring a doomsday scenario but so far have been met by shrugs across the country.

“We would obviously welcome a change of heart by Republicans, but there’s no indication from Republicans that a change of heart is forthcoming,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday as he acknowledged the obvious — that the sequester is here for the foreseeable future.

The White House — burned by a few overinflated claims of impacts and falling approval ratings — has long since given up its nationwide stop-the-sequester tour and daily appearances in the press room from Cabinet secretaries warning of dire consequences. But there is still a wisp of a hope in the West Wing that Republicans at some point will agree to a replacement that includes higher taxes. That hope rests not on national press coverage and presidential speeches but on a slowly growing stack of local news clips detailing impacts, such as an Associated Press story in Indianapolis on a lottery to determine which kids would be kicked out of the early childhood education program Head Start.

Carney said the White House still hopes the sequester will be eliminated in a broader budget deal, but that’s likely months away. Asked about the lack of urgency in eliminating it, he pointed to the White House’s past warnings on the real-world impacts and said they are starting to happen — noting the AP story.

There are certainly a host of impacts that will start to bite next month — including furloughs at the Defense Department and shuttered air traffic control towers at smaller airports across the country.

But while the impacts are starting to appear in local media across the country, particularly near military bases, rank-and-file Republicans generally say they aren’t feeling much pressure yet, and they expect the sequester will simply stay in place.

“I think, generally speaking, people haven’t noticed,” said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, noting that the flap about canceled White House tours is one exception.

“I’m not hearing anything at home, really,” said Rep. John Campbell. The California Republican said he’s been asked about the sequester more by the press than constituents. He said he heard from one contractor who said, “You know, we may lose a contract over this, but we’ll survive.”

Campbell said Republicans going home for the Easter break are going to be focused instead on touting the GOP plan to balance the budget.

“Assuming the CR [Continuing Resolution] gets passed by the Senate and passed here, then the sequester is the law of the land. … People are adjusting and … now we need to go on and talk about the different budgets.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the sequester isn’t going anywhere.

“My belief is we live with the sequester between now and Sept. 30,” he said. After that, lawmakers will have to decide whether to more intelligently design the cuts in future years. “If we do that then there is no sequester.”

Blunt said he will tell constituents that he’s tried to mitigate its effects.

“In the essential services, I’m going to tell them I did everything I could possible do to see that the border security guard, the air traffic controller, the food safety inspector had a chance to show up,” he said. Those people still have to come to work in the event of a full-blown government shutdown, he noted, and so there should be a way to keep them on the job despite the sequester. Blunt has offered legislation to give the administration more flexibility in administering the across-the-board cuts, particularly when it comes to food safety inspectors.

House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who has been railing against the sequester since its inception, said folks back home know his position.

“The only thing they’re saying is ‘keep it up,’” he said of his fight to end the “terrible and lousy” sequester, as he put it. He also said it will force the military to rewrite its strategy to reflect the cuts.

McKeon said he will tell his constituents that the CR will make things a little bit better and that the House budget blueprint would add money back to Defense.

As for the White House’s hope that Republicans might at some point trade revenue to avoid the sequester, a frustrated McKeon simply dismisses the idea as “crazy.”

That’s how many other House Republicans feel.

“They think I’m going to raise taxes over $85 billion in cuts? That was never going to happen,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. “Maybe they thought we were so wimpy we would roll.”

Indeed, administration officials had hoped for a cave that never came.

Shimkus said he’s not getting calls about the sequester. “I was at two dinners over the weekend. I asked large groups who felt the impact; not a single hand was raised,” he said. “It’s pretty quiet.”

Shimkus said he thinks the White House has been embarrassed by the blowback to its beating the drums on the sequester before March 1. “It didn’t work,” he said. And, “until we get our entitlement programs under control, expect this to continue.”

Shimkus said he is keeping his eye on the long lines at the airport amid cutbacks at the TSA. He’s showing up earlier to make sure he makes his flight.

Republican leaders also have armed their members with a full slate of talking points should they be challenged on the stump, House and Senate GOP aides noted. Among the points are that the idea originated in the White House, that Republicans have repeatedly proposed alternative cuts and that Republicans have offered the president flexibility to make them in a more thoughtful way, only to be rebuffed by Democrats and the White House.