Republicans and Democrats Crank Up Sequester Drama

Politicians prepare messaging in final week before sequestration.

Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson believes lawmakers are more interested in politics than solutions.
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With four days until $85 billion in automatic spending cuts hit federal agencies, it's the final countdown on Capitol Hill.

It's implausible Republicans and Democrats will settle on a plan to avoid the automatic budget cuts this late in the game, but the Senate floor will be buzzing with legislation designed to blame the other side.

"They are jockeying to see how they can place the blame on the other party," former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson told U.S. News. "Neither side wants to win, they just want to make the other side lose. It is a sad thing to watch for a guy who spent his life in politics."

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Republicans will meet Monday to put the finishing touches on a plan that would give the president more control over how federal agencies allocate the across-the-board cuts. By shifting the responsibility onto President Barack Obama, the Republicans are giving Obama the chance to stop the "meat cleaver" cuts he has decried in recent weeks. But the legislation isn't acceptable to Democrats, who worry the bill would make the White House and Democrats more politically culpable for sequestration.

"The Republican messaging strategy is to ensure the American people that the cuts are happening because it is the president's idea," says Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. "The Senate Republican leadership, with this bill, is making the president own the spending cuts. It takes Obama's ability to continue bashing Republicans away on these cuts, and puts the ball in his court."

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Meanwhile, the Senate will vote on a Democratic plan to replace the first year's cuts with a 50/50 mix of new revenues and more targeted spending cuts. Even if it passed out of the Senate, which is unlikely, the bill would be dead on arrival in the House of Representatives, where House Speaker John Boehner has cautioned he will not embrace a plan that includes new revenues.

If that plan fails, Democrats will likely turn around and blame the GOP for being obstructionists, and if the American public suffers like the Obama administration has warned, Democrats could win the war of public opinion.

A Pew/ USA Today poll out last week, revealed more than 75 percent of Americans preferred a balanced approach to avoid the sequester that included a mix of revenues and spending cuts like the Democrats proposed. The poll also showed the majority of Americans would blame the Republicans for letting sequestration take effect.

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Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist, says congressional Republicans who come from districts with a strong military presence could be some of the most politically vulnerable if the GOP blocks a plan to replace the sequester in the Senate.

"Voters will be sick of no compromise, serious cuts when wealthy and big profitable corporations don't pay their fair share. The Republicans may have a short-term win on deficit cutting. But when cuts kick in, voters will be angry," Lake says.

Republicans in the House argue they have done their part, voting twice for plans to replace the sequester.

The drama unfolding, however, is just the beginning. Lawmakers may look back at sequestration as a minor crisis if they face a government shutdown at the end of March when the federal government runs out of money to keep the lights on.

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And Bonjean, the GOP strategist, says Republicans are much better situated to win that fight then they were in December when handling the fiscal cliff.

"Republicans feel like they have a lot more leverage than they did at the end of [2012] because both sides want the government to function," Bonjean says.

But that doesn't mean the showdown will be void of political fireworks, warns Simpson.

"When Congress sees the chaos that results after March 1 they will realize that no one won that one," Simpson says. "But the creativity will be unbounded [in the next fight] on how to make the bomb blow up in the other one's face."