Insiders: Congress will punt sequestration for a few months

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Seventy-nine percent of National Journal’s National Security Insiders believe that when Congress returns in mid-November, members will punt sequestration for a few months as hope wanes for a broader deal to avoid the sweeping $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, roughly half from defense.

Chatter about the possibility of a short-term fix to avert sequestration for a few months increased in the lead-up to congressional recess, but a compromise to reduce the deficit remains elusive on Capitol Hill—meaning the Pentagon is facing $55 billion in additional cuts to its budget to take effect next year. “Punting seems to be the favorite sport of congressmen these days,” one Insider said. “... The best Congress will be able to do is to move the goalposts and leave any solution to the next Congress and administration.”

Congress has been unable to solve even the simplest problems in this session, another Insider added, “which does not inspire confidence in their ability to do anything more than kick the can down the road a bit.”

Another Insider said a continuing resolution would delay the sequester for six months, and an omnibus spending bill would likely keep defense spending afloat six months after that. “Sometime during this period, the Congress will likely agree to a comprehensive plan that takes Simpson-Bowles as its basis, or otherwise financial markets will begin penalizing U.S. government borrowing.”

Several Insiders said the outcome of the presidential election could be decisive when it comes to compromise on Capitol Hill. Defense hawks pushing for a compromise that spares defense are sure to be shot down, since President Obama has refused to accept a deal that spares defense cuts at the expense of steeper reductions in social programs. GOP nominee Mitt Romney, for his part, has indicated that he would protect the defense budget from sequestration if elected, and even roll back the initial tranche of $500 billion in cuts that the military has already said it could safely absorb. If Romney wins, Republicans could be less inclined to retreat on taxes and move toward a broader compromise.

A mere 13 percent said members would make a grand bargain on the deficit—but only 9 percent believed sequestration would actually go into effect on Jan. 2 in its full capacity. “In the end, they will reach some semblance of a deal to avoid sequestration,” said one Insider, who lamented such a compromise. “The only way the Pentagon will ever go on a serious diet is if forced. There are too many in Congress with political reasons, as opposed to national-security reasons, for keeping the military on its high-fat diet.”

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