Once unthinkable, severe spending cuts now seem plausible

"The only thing worse than the sequester is no sequester. We have got to hit those budget targets," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said. "The only thing worse than the sequester is no sequester. We have got to hit those budget targets," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said. Flickr user gageskidmore

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate appear to be coming to the same conclusion on spending, namely that once unthinkable, draconian cuts designed to force a more reasonable compromise may be much harder to undo than anyone ever imagined. 

For Republicans, the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts are an increasingly palatable option among deficit hounds, even if it means opposing their party's defense hawks, who staunchly oppose the deep cuts to military spending.

Democrats, on the other hand, would prefer to replace some of the spending cuts with new revenues -- an approach that is a nonstarter with Republicans. And Democrats refuse to entertain the Republican preference of replacing the military decreases with cuts to other programs.

In just another sign of how deeply divided Washington is, the so-called sequester, which was designed to be so bad that neither side would let it take effect, could very well end up becoming the law of the land.

The fiscal-cliff deal that passed earlier this month delayed the cuts until March 1. Democrats say it's likely the sequester will be delayed again to give the House and Senate time to write their budgets. But given how far apart House Republicans and Senate Democrats are on spending priorities, it's far from certain that they will agree on a package to replace the sequester.

And Democrats argue that they never wanted the sequester to begin with, but were forced to pass it in 2011 as part of the package to raise the debt limit. The cuts are split in half between military and discretionary domestic spending. The all-cuts, no-revenue package is the best deal Democrats expect to get, and they aren't reopening negotiations unless they include new revenue.

"Sequester is kind of a one-sided, cuts-only approach. Every time we talk about ... balanced budgets, reducing deficits, there have to be revenues and cuts in equal proportion or some in a reasonable proportion," said Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. "You just can’t get from where we are to where we need to go with cuts only.”

Meanwhile, Republicans showed no signs of moving off their call to replace the sequester cuts with entitlement reforms. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho said he thinks there's a growing sense among his colleagues that the mandatory spending cuts will go into effect.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., put it this way: "The only thing worse than the sequester is no sequester. We have got to hit those budget targets.... If we can do it another way, fine, but if not, we’ve got to have that hammer.”

Indeed, a buzzword gaining traction among Republicans is "flexibility," as in departments will need it to minimize fallout from the budget ax.

“I certainly do not want the sequester to go away. Or at least, let me put it this way, the amount of reductions that are in sequester I do not want to go away,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "But I do think giving some flexibility as to how they take place could be a very positive step."

Not everyone is a sequester fan. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a staunch defense hawk, cautioned lawmakers against slashing the nation's defense spending, saying, “We have to listen to our secretary of Defense and our uniformed service chiefs. I think that would be important.”

Of course, it is still too early to say with certainty whether Senate Republicans would choose the deep sequester cuts over a plan that replaces some of the military cuts with tax increases.

That, according to a Senate GOP leadership aide, would be a tough choice indeed.

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