Has Obama Given Away His Sequester Leverage?

FAA fix raises Democratic eyebrows, prompts questions about White House strategy

Posted April 29, 2013 at 4:17pm

The Obama administration’s strategy for replacing the sequester has always been to rely on public pressure when the automatic spending cuts start to sting.

But with the White House’s recent willingness to create special workarounds for programs such as the Federal Aviation Administration and meat inspectors, many Democrats fear the president is giving away all his leverage on the issue.

Democrats are frustrated that the White House still seems to think Republicans are going to come to the table and reverse the sequester. But from the 2011 supercommittee to refusing to go over the fiscal cliff on New Year’s Eve 2012 to last week’s air-traffic-control furlough fix, the administration has caved on every pressure point it designed.

Instead of taking a political risk and keeping pressure on Republicans, White House officials are banking that a series of dinners with GOP senators will foster enough good will to produce legislation.

“The easier, smarter way to do it is to eliminate the sequester and replace it with good policy, balanced, fair, sensible policy, including smart cuts, including smart entitlement reforms, including tax reform that generates revenue that can be applied to deficit reduction,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday in response to a question about the FAA bill, which will allow the agency to move more than $250 million in funds to prevent the air-traffic-controller furloughs that resulted in flight delays across the country.

Of course, Carney has been saying pretty much the same thing in most of his news briefings since November.

“The president hopes that through his conversations with Republican lawmakers, that we can find some common ground here to — to do it in this way, that eliminates the sequester and helps our economy,” Carney said.

To be sure, the GOP has been a full partner in the implementation of the across-the-board spending cuts that constitute an austerity policy. It was Republicans’ unprecedented insistence in 2011 that the nation’s borrowing capacity not be extended without commensurate cuts that bred the sequester in the first place. As Carney said Monday, “Republicans chose to embrace the sequester.”

The White House has attempted to make a sustained effort in its charm offensive and has followed up dinners with lawmakers by dispatching top officials to Capitol Hill to address questions that cropped up at those meals.

Congressional Democrats are frustrated. They still feel burned from the fiscal-cliff negotiations and largely believe that the current situation came from the White House’s refusal to go over the fiscal cliff.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. negotiated a two-month delay of the sequester while letting Republicans off the hook on the thing that would have hurt them most: massive tax increases for everyone.

The White House’s backup plan was in pressuring the GOP after the cuts were implemented, when real Americans started to be affected by them. And the administration is backing down on that now, too.

“It’s been a series of retreats since the fiscal cliff. The impetus of this all was giving up on the fiscal cliff and now we’re stuck with it,” one Democratic aide said. “It’s just really frustrating. We were there, we were ready to go, and we gave it up, and I think it just shows a lack of understanding of Congress.”

The aide said that the White House’s tactics have resulted in sparing Republicans from political pain.

“It’s a misunderstanding of getting them to the table and making them feel pain. Right now, they feel no pain,” the aide continued before defending the White House a bit. “They were concerned about going over the cliff and what it would mean for the economy — this is the cost of controlling one house of Congress and the White House — we have to be the responsible party.”

There was some grumbling last week that even the optics of the FAA deal were bad: Congress was passing a sequester carve-out on an issue that affected them most.

Of course, like every program affected by the spending cuts, there’s an economic effect to consider: delaying business or vacation travel could have real consequences. But not every cause will get a piecemeal change to protect its interests, and some Democrats worry especially about programs such as Head Start, whose constituency is not as well-financed or as organized as business.

Congressional Democrats have no current plans to freelance to take care of the cuts themselves without willing GOP partners. The president has said he won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling again, and the House GOP’s decision this winter to approve a temporary extension without new cuts revealed that Republicans aren’t itching to play that game either.

“Short of a deal to replace it with a bipartisan deal, I don’t think so,” said another Democratic aide, when asked if there were any alternative plans to take care of the sequester.

Short of serious economic downshifts as a result of the policy, it’s unclear anything will spark a real fix.

“Everyone’s holding their breath and asking, ‘Can the economy absorb this?’” the first aide said.