US Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid speaks as other Senate Democrats listen during a Wednesday news conference defining the party's legislative agenda. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — US Senate Democratic leaders have stripped from their legislative agenda efforts to further ease or eliminate the remaining eight years of across-the-board defense and domestic spending cuts.
As Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and other top Democrats — including Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois — assembled on a small stage in a Senate studio Wednesday, an aide placed a large white poster board with dark blue letters on a stand beside them.
The bold type left few illusions about the issues on which upper chamber Democrats intend to focus for the remainder of the year. The list was entirely domestic, with topics such as minimum wage “fairness,” “revitalizing manufacturing” and “college affordability,” protecting Medicare, keeping “jobs in America,” “infrastructure” and “tax fairness.”
Gone was an issue senior Senate Democrats talked a lot about in 2013: replacing the remaining years of defense and domestic sequestration cuts.
“Senate Democrats have figured out that sequestration relief will be an annual battle rather than a one-time event,” said Loren Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute and a consultant to defense firms. “The record to date indicates that partial relief is feasible — the full weight of the Budget Control Act will not fall on the Pentagon in 2013, 2014 or 2015 — but outright repeal requires a change in partisan control of the lower chamber.”
As recently as mid-November, Durbin and other top Senate Democrats were loudly arguing for a long-term fiscal deal that would prevent further defense-sector layoffs. In a twist, the defense sector was allied with Democrats on addressing sequestration and not their longtime allies, congressional Republicans.
In November, Senate Democratic leaders warned that unless sequestration is replaced with other deficit-slashing moves, planned Pentagon spending would drop by another $450 billion through 2021.
Senate Democrats hatched an aggressive anti-sequestration strategy late last year, focusing on specific companies, kinds of jobs and US cities that would suffer most.
At that time, Durbin said “millions of middle-class workers” are at risk, including welders, engineers, computer scientists, and machinists who build weapon systems or their component parts. More defense sequester cuts, which target only non-exempt accounts, including procurement and research and development (R&D), will ravage “medium and small businesses,” he said.
Unless “something is done soon,” Durbin said then, sequestration will further harm jobs and businesses in “places like Mobile, Ala., Newport, R.I., Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas — hubs of this sector.”
“Good-paying jobs across the entire nation — gone,” Durbin exclaimed. “That is what we face with this mindless sequestration approach.”
Democrats and the defense sector won a partial victory a few weeks later, securing $63 billion in sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015 under a bipartisan budget deal struck by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. That amount will be split evenly among defense and non-defense discretionary accounts.
The 2014 relief totals $45 billion, meaning the Defense Department is getting back about $22.5 billion. In 2015, the relief amount would be around $18 billion total, with $9 billion for the Pentagon.
Senate Democratic leaders appear satisfied with that partial victory, and, at least for now, want to push a domestic agenda in the run up to congressional elections this fall.
“Our priorities reflect the priorities of the middle class,” Reid told reporters. “We believe in fairness and opportunity for all.”
The leaders made clear they intend to push an election-year message that, as Reid put it, “Republicans are stuck in the past fighting the same old battles they continually fight.”
Topic A for the GOP, he claimed, is “complaining about Obamacare.”
“We’re looking to the future,” Reid said, succinctly offering a preview of Democrats’ midterm election message. “They’re stuck in the past.”
On Wednesday, Durbin spoke of reforming college loan reform, not saving defense-sector jobs.
“Is this an issue that really affects families? You bet: 60 million of them across America, 60 million are affected by this college debt. It changes lives,” he told reporters. “We’re going to speak to this issue. We’re going to address this issue so that working families and their kids have a fair shot.”
Democratic leaders made clear the priorities they laid out would be the foundation of their party’s midterm election message, and reversing pending military cuts was not part of the plan.
Industry executives and defense lobbyists are closely watching the outcome of the 2016 congressional races. Some say if Republicans capture the Senate and expand their majority in the House, there’s a chance pro-military establishment GOP members could force their leaders to push legislation further dulling — or eliminating — the last eight years of Pentagon sequestration cuts.
One Republican hawk, House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee Chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., told Defense News earlier this month that tea party Republicans could complicate that goal.
“I know they could [target sequestration]. The question is not whether they could,” Forbes said. “It’s whether they would. … So, we certainly could do that. A lot of that depends on the mix in the Senate.”