Congress Faces a Stark Choice: Sequester or Shutdown

 House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray Jacquelyn Martin/AP File Photo

Lawmakers in both parties could face a dangerous political dilemma after they return to Washington: Either endorse a second round of damaging sequester cuts or prepare for another government shutdown.

The situation is that stark, and it's coming on fast.

Budget negotiators led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray are racing to beat a Dec. 13 deadline to draft a deal that would keep the government open beyond Jan. 15.

They could get it done. Even House Speaker John Boehner says he's hopeful. But other lawmakers and aides say the odds are not good, and that's why House Republicans are now prepared to pass a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government at the $966 billion level that's dictated by the Budget Control Act, ushering in round two of the hated sequester cuts.

"I think there are smarter spending cuts that can replace these crude across-the-board cuts. I'm hoping [Murray] and I can come up with an agreement to do that," Ryan said recently. "But if not, the law is the law."

The GOP strategy carries significant downside, however. Republicans want the spending cuts, but this next phase of sequestration includes politically tricky reductions to Pentagon spending—a $20 billion slash that many lawmakers are desperate to stop.

House Republicans, particularly, could find themselves in a lose-lose situation. They acknowledge the damage done by October's shutdown saga and are determined to avoid a repeat in January, but many GOP lawmakers are afraid of cutting the Pentagon's funding.

Enough House Republicans represent military-heavy districts that any vote framed as supporting further sequestration could be unpredictable for GOP leadership. Boehner's team can afford to lose only 16 Republican votes before needing help from the other side of the aisle. And given the sequester's deep cuts to domestic programs, significant Democratic support for a continuing resolution that keeps the automatic reductions in place is unlikely.

One vocal GOP opponent of sequestration, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, has for months warned his colleagues against ushering in a second round of across-the-board cuts. Rogers speculated last week there could be some "sequester relief" included in a short-term CR, but he did not elaborate on how that would happen.

Meanwhile, the Republican leadership, while open to replacing sequestration, has increasingly indicated that it will move forward with the cuts if Ryan and Murray cannot reach an agreement. Both Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have said that they will push their members to support the sequestration cuts, absent an agreement.

As the Dec. 13 deadline approaches with no indication of a deal at hand, even some of the party's most vocal opponents of sequestration have begun to soften their opposition.

"I don't like it, but I can live with it," said one Senate Republican lawmaker, who has previously spoken out against the sequester cuts and asked not to be identified.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a member of the Appropriations Committee and a vocal opponent of sequestration, said he couldn't yet agree to a CR that would lock in those deep spending cuts, particularly to the Pentagon.

But he, like many of his Republican colleagues, worries that budget negotiations will conclude on Dec. 13 without a deal. "I don't know that they're going to get anywhere," he said.

Kingston's preference would be to get a budget agreement and pass 12 appropriations bills for the remainder of the fiscal year. But absent a deal, Kingston said he would be open to supporting a continuing resolution that locked in sequestration.

"We desperately need to cut spending," Kingston said. "And sequestration is the only game in town that's doing it.… I would be reluctant to get rid of it without other, significant, spending cuts."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.