Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., right, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., stand near a placard during an Oct. 12 press conference on Capitol Hill about the debt ceiling. (AFP)
WASHINGTON — During the 26 months since sequestration became law, replacing it was a winning talking point for members of both political parties. After all, they were able to score political points by pinning it on the other side.
For nearly two years, Republicans and Democrats rhetorically bashed the twin automatic cuts to defense and domestic spending. To be sure, GOP defense hawks led the charge.
“I was sequestration two years ago, I’m sequestration now,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told Defense News. “I’m looking at the effects on our military and our contractors and our position around the world with our allies. We’ve got to get this defense [piece] fixed.”
The GOP long has been considered the closest ally in Washington of the Defense Department and weapons manufacturers. But on the march toward the nation’s borrowing limit and a possible debt default, McKeon and other hawks, such as veteran Senate Armed Services Committee member John McCain, R-Ariz., have been left out to dry by other members of their party.
“It’s funny, [Democrats] are all about Obamacare being the law of the land, but so is the sequester,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“If we exceed that, it’s a real big step in the wrong direction,” Paul said.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a confidant of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, told reporters last week that fiscal conservatives want to keep the sequester funding levels in place — and cut deeper.
In a twist for DoD and industry, Senate Democratic leaders took charge of trying to negotiate a debt-ceiling deal with the White House with plans to replace at least some of the sequester cuts. The Democrats want to raise the borrowing limit and fund the government until Jan. 15, giving Washington three months to address sequestration before the next round of cuts kick in.
Democratic and Republican senators, notably, returned from separate meetings with Obama last week to tell reporters the president reiterated to them his desire to replace the sequester cuts.
“The plan would be to open up the government immediately for a period of time before the sequester hits and then have serious discussions where we might be able to undo the sequester,” the No. 3 Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program.
“I’m optimistic that could work,” Schumer said. “That’s one of the sticking points. Look, neither Democrats nor Republicans like the sequester.”
Lawmakers and sources say Republicans are pushing back in the behind-closed-doors negotiations, skeptical that Democratic leaders want to exceed spending caps put into place by the same law that created sequestration, the 2011 Budget Control Act.
A senior Senate said that McConnell is willing to discuss replacing defense and domestic sequestration cuts, but only if Republicans can be convinced the replacement items would be “real.”
“That’s certainly something that members of both parties have said [they’re] for,” the senior aide said, adding that McConnell and other Republicans would only sign on if “the replacements are real, not tax hikes, and keep the levels the same.”
McConnell’s allies have been fanning out across television news programs to question Democratic leaders’ intentions with their sequester-replacement plans.
“I think the Democrats are on the verge of being one tick too cute,” Corker said.
“As they see the House possibly in disarray, they now are overreaching,” Corker said.
He boldly predicted the Democrats’ sequester-replacement plan will ultimately fail.
“My sense is that Democrats will pull back,” Corker said. “At some point … this is something that ... the administration will realize is not a game they need to be playing with.”
That leaves the Pentagon and defense industry aligned suddenly with Senate Democrats, as they have been in previous Obama-era fiscal fights.
Analysts say the reason for this shift is the tea party, which began getting House members and senators elected in 2010.
“The reality is that the rise of the tea party as a force in Congress has coincided with a series of setbacks for America’s military that now threaten to leave it unprepared for combat,” Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said in a recent blog post.
“Training has been deferred, equipment maintenance has been delayed, and investment in new technology has been canceled. Collectively, these developments are unraveling the fighting force that America spent trillions of dollars building up after 9-11,” Thompson wrote.
“Unfortunately, it will probably take a new conflict to reveal the full damage that tea party fiscal practices have done to the nation’s military preparedness,” he wrote.
The tea party’s stranglehold over House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, means the Senate Democrats’ sequester plan would be in jeopardy if it is included in any debt-ceiling bill the upper chamber sends to the House this week.