THE PRESIDENT: Obama convened his first sequester séance at 10 with everyone heading into the Oval — Biden, Boehner, Reid, McConnell and Pelosi — totally aware they were not going to be able to summon a substitute in time. The meeting lasted 56 minutes. The president now has until a minute before midnight to sign the paperwork ordering the across-the-board spending cuts to commence, at a rate of $400.4 million each day for the final 213 days of this fiscal year.
“Dumb, arbitrary cuts to things that businesses depend on” are now a certainty, the president said in opening a news conference after the Hill leaders left in four separate black SUVs. “The good news is the American people are strong and they’re resilient. They fought hard to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and we will get through this as well.”
THE SUPREME COURT: The justices are meeting for a closed conference to consider potential new appeals and to take a first pass at deciding cases argued this week — the challenge to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act (or at least the use of voter suppression evidence from the 1970s to curtail nine states’ ability in the 2010s to set election laws without federal oversight).
THE SENATE: Not in session; next convenes at 2 on Monday with plans to do no more than confirm two more federal trial judges in New York.
THE HOUSE: Not in session; next convenes at noon on Monday, but that day’s legislative agenda isn’t firmed up.
HAPPY TO TAKE THE PLUNGE: The certainty that the country would get a substantive of what Washington dysfunction feels like was locked down even before this morning’s ceremonial stare-down session got started.
Obama last night, and McConnell at breakfast time this morning, issued statements emphasizing the calcification of their bargaining positions. “I’m happy to discuss other ideas to keep our commitment to reducing Washington spending,” the most experienced bipartisan negotiator in today’s GOP said about his expectations for his time in the West Wing. “But there will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes.” The president lambasted the Republicans for their willingness “to let the entire burden of deficit reduction fall squarely on the middle class,” and said they’d have little to talk about until the other side expressed a willingness to talk revenue, because “That’s how our democracy works, and that’s what the American people deserve.”
Put another way, all that predictable rhetoric underscores how both sides have become eager for today’s deadline to be busted, and for the showdown to continue for the next three weeks — by which time they’ll find a way to paper it over, with almost all the $85 billion in savings locked down, but the across-the-board aspect of sequester abandoned. In other words, half the sequester’s anticipated pain (from the meat cleaver approach) will be blocked, but the other half (the overall deep reduction) won’t. The official deadline is March 27, when the current spending law expires; the real and more important deadline is the weekend of March 22, when the congressional spring recess is to begin. Neither the most emphatic tea party hard-liner nor the most bleeding-hearty social-spending liberal can afford to leave D.C. for two weeks without enacting another CR, which otherwise means a partial government shutdown right after they arrive home. Until then, though, the Republicans will be happy to watch the spending restraint they’ve been dreaming of start to materialize, and the Democrats will be happy to watch for their predictions of public anger at the cuts to bubble up (and to see the Pentagon trimmed by at least $6 billion.)
BARGAINING CHIPS: What neither side has mentioned – and hasn’t, really, for several weeks – is that they’re fully aware that ever-expanding Medicare and Medicaid, mainly, but also the other social program entitlements are the principal drivers of the long-term red-ink problem. In part, that’s because the ultimately bipartisan decision of 2011 to set up the sequester process included the decision to hold those programs almost entirely harmless in the far-fetched (surprise!) eventuality that Washington would decide the fiscal-straitjacket-that-was-too-unpleasant-to-consider was in fact going to be tried on for a while. Beyond that, though, there’s a passive but bipartisan consensus that it’s not possible for now to achieve any sort of deal to rein in government health care costs — given the bilious air both at the Capitol and surrounding the public’s view of the capital.
Which is why the talk at the White House turned quickly this morning to the discretionary (appropriations) part of the budget. The debate will be turning in the next week almost entirely toward these questions: How much of a sliver — 10 percent at most — should be taken off the grand total as a bargaining victory for Obama? Might it be replaced with just one “revenue enhancement” that the president could label a new tax on the rich but the Republicans might label as something more euphemistic? How much can the regular-order appropriations process — or what passes for that these days — be revived in time to give the agencies an alternative road map for picking winners and losers among their programs for the next seven months?
The CR the House will push through along party lines next week would give the Pentagon and the VA that privilege, but none of the domestic departments — and would do nothing to back away from the $85 billion in cuts apportioned comparably to both butter and guns. The new Senate Appropriations chairwoman, Barbara Mikulski, says she’ll respond with an omnibus that knits together all of the 12 bills her panel worked on last year, and would hew to the grand total of $1.043 trillion — but also without language to avoid the sequester’s haircut to that number. For today, neither party on either side of the Capitol is talking any more about insisting (the GOP’s word) or allowing (some Democrats’ words) Obama to apportion the cuts as he thinks best. And — maybe most importantly — Democratic leaders are sending louder and louder signals that they’re giving up on their talk about allowing a government shutdown unless the sequester is turned off. That won’t happen unless Obama threatens to veto a CR that keeps the sequester in place, and he’s not making even a feint in that direction. In fact, he just told reporters he could imagine almost no scenario under which he would do so.
EMERGENCY PLAN: The most important-but-overlooked official document so far in the sequester showdown is a memo from OMB Controller Danny Werfel, offering both more severe estimates about the depth of the cuts but also guidance to all federal agencies suggesting that implementation in many cases won’t be nearly as problematic as Obama and his senior team have been describing.
For the past several weeks, most lawmakers and administration officials have been describing the effect of the sequester as a 5 percent cut from domestic programs and an 8 percent cut from defense programs — citing as their source an estimate a couple of weeks ago from CBO. But those numbers are too low, the White House budget official warned, because they reflect the apportioning of the reductions across this entire fiscal year, when in fact all $85.3 billion in reductions are to be carried out over the next seven months. And so, Werfel says, the better numbers to use are a 9 percent cut from domestic agency budgets and a 13 percent cut to the military.
Nonetheless, he signaled clearly in a memo dated Wednesday but made public yesterday, bureaucrats have much more discretion and flexibility in meting out the pain than the president and his Cabinet (Holder, Duncan, LaHood and Napolitano most prominently) have been describing as both imminent and unavoidable. “Agencies’ planning efforts must be guided by the principle of protecting the agency’s mission to serve the public to the greatest extent practicable,” he wrote – and he encouraged agencies to do whatever they could to keep from filling vacant positions, abandon promised employee bonuses, cancel performance award programs and scratch training, conferences and travel before thinking about cuts to core services. “Planning efforts should be done with sufficient detail and clarity to determine the specific actions that will be taken to operate under the lower level of budgetary resources required by sequestration,” he said.
“A slow grind that will intensify with each passing day,” was the way Obama described the effects of the sequester at his news conference a few minutes ago — a ratcheting back of his dramatic predictions of immediate pain, which even some of his agency directors have been distancing themselves from in recent days. (The GAO, Smithsonian, SBA and Agency for International Development all say they can live with the cuts without furloughs, and IRS says it won’t consider laying people off until after the rush of tax season climaxes in April.)
UNEXPECTED VOTES: Almost all the Republicans in the House who are considering 2014 Senate campaigns voted against the Violence Against Women Act revival and expansion — a decidedly curious outcome given that the bill was allowed to clear yesterday with mostly Democratic support in large measure so the GOP might start shedding its “war on women” problem with plenty of time before the next midterm.
Not only did Paul Broun, who’s already declared for Georgia’s open seat, vote “no,” but so did the four others in the delegation who may join him: Phil Gingrey, Jack Kingston, Tom Price and Tom Graves. So did Tom Cotton, who’s being recruited to take on Mark Pryor in Arkansas; Steve King, who now looks like the front-runner for the nomination for Iowa’s open seat as soon as he declares; Renee Elmers, who’s being recruited to take on Kay Hagan in North Carolina; and two of the three members mulling their chances against Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, John Fleming and Bill Cassidy. The one declared Senate candidate on the roster of 87 Republicans who voted for the bill was Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. So did Charles Boustany of Louisiana and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who may end up running for the Senate, and Aaron Schock, who’ll likely run if Dick Durbin retires. (The most prominent party leaders in the “yes” column where Whip Kevin McCarthy and potential 2016 presidential aspirant Paul Ryan.)
At the same time, it’s also worth noting that three of the four Senate Democrats who are in the most re-election trouble at the moment (having effectively committed to running) all went against the grain on yesterday’s other key vote: Landrieu, Pryor and Hagan (but not Mark Begich of Alaska) cast the only three “no” votes from their caucus on the Democratic sequester plan, clearly unwilling to go on record so early in the cycle in favor of new tax increases and farm subsidy cuts.