WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration reaches across the aisle to deal with instability in Syria and Egypt, some say working together on missile strikes and hardware shipments could help produce a sequester-addressing fiscal deal.
White House officials and Republican lawmakers suddenly are aligned on lobbing cruise missiles into Syria and maintaining military aid to Egypt. Working together on those issues, former officials and defense insiders say, could help both sides to find common ground later on a bill that lessens or voids the remaining nine years of sequestration.
For instance, several months ago, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was one of President Barack Obama’s chief critics — on domestic and foreign policy issues. Half a year later, McCain has worked with Obama on immigration reform, fiscal matters and met privately with the president about national security issues.
Obama even sent McCain to Egypt. And prominent conservative columnist Norman Ornstein has predicted if Obama can get McCain to sign off on a sequester-addressing “grand bargain,” the bill could get up to 70 votes in the Senate. Other analysts say that could be enough to force House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, into a political corner with one exit: To allow the grand bargain to pass the House with mostly Democratic support.
GOP senators, before they left for a month-long recess, told Defense News they are cautiously optimistic that early talks toward a grand bargain with White House officials would lead to a deal that has eluded Washington over the past three years.
Republicans such as Sen. Bob Corker, Tenn., have said any time the two sides spend together is constructive. So with Corker, McCain and other GOP members now helping sell the administration’s preferred Syria and Egypt policies, analysts and former officials see reasons for hope.
“I do think it helps work on a fiscal deal because it’ll show they’re using military action as some in the Congress have called for,” said Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress. “This will make, not everybody completely happy, but not antagonize people on the Hill. If the president consults with them, that will be an important step.”
The White House did just that, briefing senior House and Senate members from both parties about its Syria plans on Aug. 29.
Korb said the administration’s Syria and Egypt policy and outreach “will help” win over McCain and the other two senators making up the “Three Amigos”: GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
Getting a big fiscal deal through the lower chamber will be a tougher sale. But war operations could make it easier because Americans typically rally around a president when hostilities break out.
“In the House, even Boehner says we have to stand together because of the situation in Syria,” Korb said. “It also will make it easier for the [members] who don’t want to see defense gutted by sequestration.”
A wartime grand bargain negotiation also could make it easier for Boehner to waive the so-called Hastert Rule, meaning he would stand aside and let a fiscal bill pass with mostly minority support, Korb said. “Boehner would be able to say, ‘We have to come together right now.’ ”
Loren Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute and an industry consultant, echoed Korb’s statement.
“Recent developments in Syria, Egypt and other Arab countries underscore the danger of allowing military readiness to deteriorate,” Thompson said. “Since sequestration gets most of the blame for declining readiness, legislators are warming to alternative ways of reducing the deficit.
“With military challenges rising and deficit reduction starting to bite at the state level, the stage is set for a compromise on sequestration,” Thompson said. “Diehard backers of the process are beginning to look irresponsible about security and vulnerable at the polls in next year’s (2014) midterm election.”
Experts say the Obama administration cannot afford to dither just as it is building goodwill and working with key Republicans.
“They have to move quickly,” Korb said. “They cannot afford to not capitalize.”
But Gordon Adams, who ran national defense budgeting during the Clinton administration, said there is no reason to believe “anyone who’s been meeting with the president can actually deliver a budget deal.”
“McCain can’t deliver a budget deal, Graham can’t deliver a budget deal,” said Adams, now with the Stimson Center. “The only one in the Senate who can is Mitch McConnell.”
McConnell, R-Ky., has before, but “he’s running for re-election from his right,” Adams noted. “So he’s not going to be able to do it this time.”
In the House, “the only one who can deliver a deal is Boehner. But he has a fractious caucus that doesn’t want a deal,” Adams said. “Perhaps I’m too-cynical-by-half on this. But I’ve seen this movie before. … I’m very skeptical that any of this leads to a deal.” ■