Top lawmakers spent Tuesday searching for leverage points in the coming public-relations war over the automatic spending cuts that almost everyone agrees will now occur even though they were never designed to go into effect.
For Senate Republicans, one such potential spot is in crafting an alternative to the so-called sequester that would lessen the blow of the cuts by giving the White House more flexibility as to where to reduce spending.
But after Senate Republicans met for more than an hour at their weekly luncheon on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his conference remained divided into two factions: those who support giving the White House more flexibility to ease the coming cuts and those who fear giving away any power to the Obama administration.
McConnell said that, personally, “I would be happy to give the president more flexibility.” But some of his colleagues, he said, are “suspicious” of ceding congressional power to the White House. Those Republicans fear the administration would use added flexibility “to punish their political enemies,” McConnell said.
The White House and leading Senate Democrats have lined up against any flexibility proposal, arguing agencies need more funds, not more flexibility. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., dismissed backing such a plan. “No, why would I?” he said.
Several Democrats toed the party line by arguing that authorizing such discretion would be akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. They included Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Barbara Boxer of California, Carl Levin of Michigan, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
But some sources close to the administration have quietly expressed concern that when push comes to shove -- after the sequester cuts have taken hold and appear to be sticking -- some Democrats might eventually embrace the idea of giving more flexibility to agencies as a least-worst option to manage the pain.
There are signs that the concept has some appeal.
If the Democrats fail to stop sequestration as expected -- Reid filed Tuesday for cloture on a bill to halt the cuts, but it would take 60 votes to end debate and move to vote on the bill -- Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said lawmakers need to face “reality” and should consider other ways to proceed.
“If there is flexibility built into it, if that’s the only alternative we have, then it’s something that has to be considered,” he said. “It’s a smarter way of doing it than just the draconian cuts across the board.”
Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., said that as a former governor, he would welcome the ability to have more discretion to implement the cuts if he were the president and suggested that perhaps a modest degree of discretion for the executive branch might bridge problems temporarily.
But some Senate Democrats -- and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats -- are hesitant to support the GOP’s idea of giving the White House flexibility because the blame for fallout from the cuts would ultimately fall at President Obama’s feet.
“It would enable the folks who are sponsoring [flexibility legislation] to then blame the president for the cuts,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. “They’re saying: ‘We don’t want these cuts, you decide.’ And then, sure enough, two weeks later they’ll say: ‘Why did you close that base in my state?’ ”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he supports providing flexibility, but admits the politics are awkward for Obama. “Because then he’s the one having to make the cuts,” Flake said. “He’d rather blame Congress.”