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House GOP plan would separate sequestration, debt-ceiling fight

Jan. 18, 2013 - 05:10PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments

U.S. House leaders on Jan. 18 unveiled a strategy that would divorce pending cuts to Pentagon spending from a coming fight over the nation’s borrowing limit, a plan that would give lawmakers time to focus on averting those cuts and passing a measure to keep the government running.

At issue is the so-called “triple cliff,” which is composed of the hotly political debt ceiling, twin $500 billion cuts to planned defense and domestic spending, and a continuing resolution (CR) to fund all government operations. The debt ceiling may already have been reached. The spending cuts are set to kick in March 1. The current 2013 CR expires March 27.

Lawmakers and sources have said that since the January deal set up the three-pronged cliff, the already boiling political climate in Washington could erupt, making it difficult to get all three problems resolved. What’s more, some defense analysts, such as Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, opined earlier this month that because congressional Republicans intend to make the debt ceiling debate mostly about massive federal spending cuts, the twin defense and domestic cuts were more likely.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaled shortly after the House leaders’ announcement that the upper chamber would consider any “clean” debt-ceiling hike. The strategy could give lawmakers time during January and February to focus on avoiding the across-the-board cuts — which many in both parties oppose — and how to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The House GOP plan is intended to press the Senate into passing a budget that features big federal spending cuts. Whether the Pentagon budget, which would be around $530 billion in 2013 if the sequestration cuts are voided, would be tapped as a part of Republican efforts to cut spending and shrink the federal government is unclear.

“Before there is any long-term debt limit increase, a budget should be passed that cuts spending. The Democratic-controlled Senate has failed to pass a budget for four years,” House Speaker John Boehner said during remarks at the Republicans’ closed-door retreat in Williamsburg, Va. “That is a shameful run that needs to end, this year.

“We are going to pursue strategies that will obligate the Senate to finally join the House in confronting the government’s spending problem. The principle is simple: no budget, no pay,” Boehner said, according to excerpts released by his office.

“A long-term increase in the debt limit that is not preceded by meaningful and responsible reductions in government spending might avert a default, but it would also invite a downgrade of our nation’s credit that damages our economy, hurts families and small businesses, and destroys jobs.”

One defense analyst responded to the House leader’s announcement by noting Boehner remains focused on cutting only domestic entitlement programs, something President Obama and congressional Democrats will strongly oppose.

“Boehner speaks in the abstract about excessive spending, but what he really means is entitlements,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “When sequestration hits places like Huntsville and Texarkana” — which have a big defense presence — “Republicans will start differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spending,” he added.

In a statement, the White House tepidly applauded the House plan.

“We are encouraged that there are signs that congressional Republicans may back off their insistence on holding our economy hostage,” the White House said. “Congress must pay its bills and pass a clean debt limit increase without further delay. And as he has said, the president remains committed to further reducing the deficit in a balanced way.”

The latter part of the statement exposes a difference between President Obama and congressional Republicans. Obama wants additional deficit-reduction via spending cuts and new revenues; Republicans want to do it simply by slashing federal spending — and that could in several months drag the massive Pentagon budget back into Washington’s crosshairs.

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