GOP On The Sequester: Many Messages But Mostly The Same Point

Mar 2, 2013
Originally published on March 2, 2013 9:04 am

In the days leading up to the sequester taking effect Friday, Democrats on Capitol Hill had a very unified message.

"We're seeking to provide the American people with a balanced approach. Again, that's what the American people want," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at a press conference.

Talk to any Democrat and you'd get essentially the same answer: The sequester is bad, and they want to replace it with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases through closing loopholes.

But the GOP was less focused. Listening to congressional Republicans this week, it was hard to tell at times whether they thought the sequester was a good thing or a bad thing; whether they thought it should happen or not; and whether it would be painful or just a tiny trim.

A few examples:

-- House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, at a press conference Thursday: "Listen, it is the president's sequester. It was his team that insisted upon it. ... I didn't like it anymore than anybody else liked it."

-- Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio at a Wednesday event called Conversations with Conservatives: "The sequester should happen. That's going to happen in two days. That is good. First significant savings for the American taxpayer in a long, long — since I've been here. I've been here six years — first time we've actually saved the taxpayers some real money. That's going to happen."

-- And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a floor speech: "Remember, we're only talking about cutting 2 to 3 percent of the budget. Any business owner or middle-class parent will tell you it's completely ridiculous to think Washington can't find a better way to cut 2 or 3 percent of the federal budget at a time when we're $16 trillion in debt."

It sounds like a contradiction, but they're all taking different approaches to more or less the same point: The sequester wasn't Republicans' idea. They like the $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years that it brings; they just don't like the across-the-board nature of the cuts. So they would be open to making them more flexible or smarter. And also, they'd like even more cuts in the future.

It doesn't fit on a bumper sticker.

Add to the message muddle pro-defense Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who are so concerned about cuts to military spending in the sequester that they weren't interested in toeing the party line.

"I think the top-line number is the problem. No matter how flexible you are, I think it cuts too much over time out of defense," Graham says. "I believe our commanders that the cumulative effect of sequestration is bad for defense."

Graham was one of nine Republicans who broke with their party and voted against a sequester alternative bill that would have allowed the president more flexibility in making the cuts.

On Friday, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, even went so far as to say that if there were an effort to fully repeal the sequester when it came to defense cuts, he'd support it, "if that's the only option."

"$500 billion cuts out of our national security, and we're talking about readiness, and now we're starting to talk about lives," he said.

But McKeon says there's no chance of repeal now. A few weeks ago, he was so disgusted with his colleagues' willingness to cut the military, he invoked a party hero.

"I think Reagan [would] turn over in his grave," he said. "The party of defense?"

It reflects a divide in the party between old-school pro-defense Republicans and those with more libertarian leanings, who favor small government in all areas.

Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, has long said he would take the sequester over many of the alternatives.

"When you compare that to a postponement or to neuter some of these cuts, take the sequester, you bet," he says. "I'm one saying, hey, if we can't get dollar-for-dollar cuts elsewhere, significant cuts, then go forward with the sequester."

Of course, message discipline isn't everything. Democrats didn't get anything they publicly claimed to want. The sequester is in effect with no clear path to fix it and definitely no path to more revenue.

And depending on which Republican you're talking to, they got exactly what they wanted.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Democrats had a unified message all week long about sequestration. Here's Senate majority leader Harry Reid at a Capitol Hill press conference.

SENATOR HARRY REID: We're seeking to provide the people with a balanced approach. Again, that's what the American people want.

SIMON: Democrats say the sequester is bad. They want to replace it with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases through closing loopholes.

But, as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, the Republicans seemed less focused.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Listen to congressional Republicans this week, and at times it was hard to tell whether they thought the sequester was a good thing or a bad thing; whether they thought it should happen or not; whether it would be painful or just a tiny trim.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Listen, it is the president's sequester. It was his team that insisted upon it.

KEITH: This is House speaker John Boehner at a press conference Thursday.

BOEHNER: I didn't like it anymore than anybody else liked it.

KEITH: And this is Republican Congressman Jim Jordan from Ohio the day before at an event called Conversations with Conservatives.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM JORDAN: The sequester should happen. That's going to happen in two days. That is good. First significant savings for the American taxpayer in a long, long - since I've been here. I've been here six years. First time we've actually saved the taxpayers some real money. That's going to happen.

KEITH: And Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in a floor speech.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Remember, we're only talking about cutting 2 to 3 percent of the budget. Any business owner or middle-class parent will tell you, it's completely ridiculous to think Washington can't find a better way to cut 2 or 3 percent of the federal budget at a time when we're $16 trillion in debt.

KEITH: It sounds like a contradiction but they're all taking different approaches to more or less the same point. Here it is: The sequester wasn't Republican's idea but they like the $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years that it brings. They just don't like the across-the-board nature of the cuts. So they'd be open to making them more flexible or smarter. And also, they'd like even more cuts in the future. It doesn't fit on a bumper sticker.

Add to the message muddle, pro-defense Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham, so concerned about cuts to military spending in the sequester, they weren't interested in towing the party line.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think the top line number is the problem. No matter how flexible you are, I think it cuts too much over time out of the defense. I believe our commanders that the cumulative effect of sequestration is bad for defense.

KEITH: Graham was one of nine Republicans who broke with their party and voted against a sequester alternative that would have given the president more flexibility in making the cuts.

The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon even went so far yesterday as to say if there were an effort to fully repeal the sequester when it came to defense cuts he'd support it.

REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: Five hundred billion cuts out of our national security and we're talking about readiness, and now we're talking about lives. Yeah, if that's the only option.

KEITH: Though he says there's no chance of repeal now. A few weeks earlier he was so disgusted with his colleagues' willingness to cut the military, he invoked a party hero.

MCKEON: I think Reagan would turn over in his grave. The party of defense?

KEITH: It reflects a divide in the party between old school pro-defense Republicans and those who have more libertarian leanings, who favor small government in all areas of government.

Jeff Flake is a Republican senator from Arizona who has long said he'd take the sequester over many of the alternatives.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: When you compare that to a postponement or to neuter some of these cuts, take the sequester - you bet. So I'm one saying, hey, if we can't get dollar-for-dollar cuts elsewhere, significant cuts, then go for the sequester.

KEITH: Of course, message discipline isn't everything. Democrats didn't get anything they publicly claimed to want. The sequester is in effect with no clear path to fix it and definitely no path to more revenue. And depending on which Republican you're talking to, they got exactly what they wanted.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.