Politico: Days before the March 1 deadline, Senate Republicans are circulating a draft bill that would cancel $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts and instead turn over authority to President Barack Obama to achieve the same level of savings under a plan to be filed by March 8. (All I can say is… Really?)
The five- page document, which has the tacit support of Senate GOP leaders, represents a remarkable shift for the party. Having railed against Senate Democrats for not passing a budget, Republicans are now proposing that Congress surrender an important piece of its Constitutional “power of the purse” for the last seven months of this fiscal year.
As proposed, lawmakers would retain the power to overturn the president’s spending plan by March 22, but only under a resolution of disapproval that would demand two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate to prevail over an Obama veto.
The proposal would require — like the sequester — that no more than $42.6 billion of the cuts come at the expense of defense programs. But the elaborate, almost Rube Goldberg construct is already provoking sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike and reflects a political scramble to escape the fallout from the sequester.
The sweep of the first GOP option is striking. If Congress were to follow this course, significant power would be shifted to the president, an unusual maneuver that even Obama himself and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have scoffed at. But the plan appears to have the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and is being advanced by conservative Republicans who don’t want the White House to continue using the sequester as a public relations hammer.
“Let’s be clear about the goal here,” McConnell said, somewhat defensively on the Senate floor Wednesday
Reid has said he will allow Republicans one shot at offering a sequester solution this week, but the GOP has been divided about a way forward. Even if Republicans unite behind this latest approach, it is unlikely to clear the Senate, ensuring that the sequestration cuts will take effect Friday.
The internal GOP jostling comes as top Democratic senators openly acknowledge they lack the 60 votes to get their plan out of the Senate with their alternative to forestall the cuts for 10 months with alternative savings and new taxes on millionaires. With no resolution in sight by week’s end, Congress’s next best hope to adjust to the sequester’s blow falls to House and Senate appropriators, who must next replace the continuing resolution set to expire March 27.
Asked Tuesday if Democrats expected to get any GOP support to exceed the 60-vote threshold later this week, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) laughed and said bluntly: “No.”
Both parties want to avoid a government shutdown by March 27, but the same replacement bill for the expiring CR could also be used to mitigate the damage of the cuts by adjusting the underlying agency appropriations.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) is pressing her caucus to extend government funding with a more detailed package that would make it easier for agencies to cope with the lower funding levels. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has had some early discussions with Mikulski, but so far he wants to push forward with a narrower plan that would focus most of the relief on the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs.
In the interim, Republicans began to press forward Tuesday with their own alternative measure that would give the Obama administration more discretion to decide how to implement the cuts.
Supporters of the Republican sequester replacement proposal circulated by GOP Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma believe it would make it harder for the administration to argue that the automatic cuts would imperil everything from food safety to airport security and give military leaders the flexibility to spare the most important programs from cuts.
“It’s exactly the right thing to do,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
Toomey’s office made available Tuesday night a partial audio of a telephone call he made with Pennsylvania reporters about his legislation.
“We need to preserve the magnitude of the cuts, but I think almost everybody agrees that it would be better off if they were done differently,” Toomey said. “We’re talking about giving the president this discretion for a matter of several months. It’s from now to the end of this fiscal year.”
Under the Republican plan, Obama would be required to offer a sequester alternative by March 8. Congress would have until March 22 to pass a resolution of disapproval, which would done by a simple majority vote. If that resolution is signed by the president, the original sequestration order would be restored. But the process is subject to a veto, requiring two-thirds to prevail and overrule whatever plan the president comes up with.
The plan generated immediate pushback from Reid and Obama, who said Tuesday “there’s no smart way” to make $85 billion in cuts before the end of the fiscal year. Joining the opposition were a bevy of powerful Senate Republicans, including John McCain, who is wary of ceding more authority to the administration.
“Congress has a constitutional responsibility to authorize and appropriate for the nation’s security,” McCain said Tuesday. “And why give that responsibility over the president of the United States — and that renders us not just ineffective but irrelevant.”
Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, is wary of ceding too much power to Obama to shift dollars.
“We ought to be watching that,” Shelby said. “You give a president all the power in the world, you’re giving up a lot.”
Ayotte’s plan, which she developed in partnership with McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is closer to the model used by House Republicans in their own sequester replacement package last year. The draft circulated Tuesday night includes a $10 billion cut from defense appropriations but appears to get most of its savings from the domestic side of the ledger. Food stamps, the refundable child tax credit, and federal employee retirement benefits are among the targets.
But Reid plainly warned Republicans on Tuesday that he’ll allow only one GOP alternative plan to see a floor vote, leaving Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a tough position as he tries to unite his divided conference behind a single idea.
“We get whiplash around here,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. “One day the Republicans are saying [Obama’s] got too much power, and the next day they’re saying, ‘Give him all the power.’ It gets confusing.”
Meanwhile, Mikulski is pressing her caucus to extend government funding with a more detailed package that would make it easier for agencies to cope with the lower funding levels as a result of the sequester. Rogers has had some early discussions with Mikulski, but he wants to push forward with a plan to extend current funding levels for most agencies but put the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs on more permanent footing with full-year appropriations already negotiated with the Senate.
“There will be opportunities for us through the appropriations process, with the continuing resolution, I think, to address the allocation of some of the spending cuts,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Tuesday.
The sequester issue even found its way into a White House meeting on immigration reform Tuesday afternoon involving Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, McCain and Graham.
Despite the inaction on Capitol Hill, Graham sounded upbeat after the meeting. The Republican has repeatedly said he’d be open to $500 billion to $600 billion in revenues as part of a deficit deal. But he told POLITICO that Obama can’t expect Republicans to support revenues “to fix the sequester.”
With uncertainty looming large, both parties are eagerly awaiting word on the next steps — and bracing for the political backlash.
“I think the American people may view it as a failure on Republicans’ part, but they may view it as a failure of presidential presidential leadership,” McCain said. But the Arizona Republican was quick to warn his party: “The president has a megaphone, and the president is very effective in getting his message across.”
Senate Democrats are largely united behind Obama’s call to raise revenue, with Reid scheduling a Thursday procedural vote on a 39- page Democratic bill filed Tuesday evening that would raise $55 billion in revenue by imposing a minimum 30 percent tax on millionaires. The measure would replace the sequestration cuts with $27.5 billion slashed from defense programs and the same amount coming from cuts to farm programs.
If and when the cuts are ordered Friday, the immediate focus will be on how best to manage the reductions and what funds may yet be restored as part of a deal with the White House.
Indeed, the government is now operating under a six-month CR, and whatever bill replaces that will define how the government adapts to the reductions.
“Reid knows that a straight CR just won’t do it. It’s just a change of date,” Mikulski said, calling for a more detailed omnibus spending package to overhaul the sequestration cuts.
But Shelby isn’t yet willing to commit to a full-scale omnibus package, and much depends on the reaction across the Capitol in the House. Indeed, Rogers thus far has been wary of taking Mikulski’s more ambitious approach for fear of angering the vocal right wing in his conference.
Rogers’s CR plans are sure to be discussed Wednesday as part of a House GOP conference on the larger budget crisis. And Senate Republicans are also watching these deliberations in case the House opts to add its own language to give Obama broad discretion to shift money among accounts.
“I want to see what the House brings over in their CR,” said Republican Sen. John Hoeven, a former North Dakota governor. “We have to find a way to cut some spending but do it in the most thoughtful way. … We’ll provide flexibility so [Obama] can go through and make determinations on where to cut and minimize the impact both on defense and nondefense.”