President Barack Obama and members of Congress have dubbed sequestration "stupid,""dumb" and "irresponsible." But here's one thing none of them are calling it: "My fault."
With across-the-board spending cuts about to start March 1 absent a last-minute breakthrough, the excuses are piling up for how the country is yet again on the brink of a new fiscal fiasco that has everything to do with the other guy.
It's hard to know who will end up taking the biggest political hit if the latest Washington-induced crisis moves from theoretical to real -- but the answer may well lie in which side can get the public to buy into its finger-pointing at the other side.
That's why the excuses matter: Polls show Obama has the upper hand now over unpopular lawmakers, but much can change if sequestration upends the country's economic recovery and Americans lose their jobs and access to popular government services.
Here's a look at 10 of the most frequent excuses employed by Democrats and Republicans as the sequestration debate reaches its climax:
1. House GOP: Hey, we did our job. What's Obama waiting for?
House Speaker John Boehner was back to this argument Wednesday after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that most of his civilian employees would face furloughs if the sequester starts next week. The Ohio Republican cited two House-passed bills from last Congress that would replace the sequester with "common-sense cuts and reforms that protect our national security."
But here's the problem: Both of the House bills shift much of the cuts away from the Pentagon and onto other cash-strapped domestic agencies. For that reason, both were long ago considered DOA in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
2. Obama and the Democrats: Yup, Republicans are STILL protecting the rich.
The nation's debt is so deep that sequester alone won't fix it. Democrats say Republicans know this, but ideology won't let them go along with some of the other ideas on the table, including overhauling the country's clunky tax code and even making changes to entitlement programs.
Without new tax revenue, Democratic party leaders say there's really no way out of this mess. "With our economy fragile and the uncertainty in the economy, to just burn the house down right now makes no sense to me," Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 4 Democrat in leadership, told POLITICO. "It needs to be balanced, balanced, balanced."
Another liberal, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), echoed Obama's call for raising revenue by closing loopholes and limiting deductions that benefit the rich. "The wealthy are doing phenomenally well while the middle class is getting decimated," he said in an interview.
3. Both sides: Don't look at me. I didn't vote for it in the first place.
This is the refrain available for about 130 House members and 25 senators still serving from the last Congress who voted "Nay" when the Budget Control Act hit the floor in August 2011. Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats both fall into this category, allowing them to take credit for being among the first to register their objections to the idea of blunt spending cuts triggered if the so-called supercommittee couldn't reach its own deal on more than $1 trillion in deficit reduction.
Of course, "I told you so" doesn't exactly make the spending cuts any easier to swallow.
4. House GOP: The whole thing was Obama's idea.
Don't take our word for it, Republicans say. Just read Bob Woodward's "The Price of Politics," which hit bookshelves in September with the critical revelation that then-OMB Director Jack Lew and then-White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors first pitched the idea of sequestration to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) during the 2011 budget battles.
Citing that anecdote, Boehner's office even created its own awkward-sounding term for the cuts: "Obamaquester."
But even if Team Obama came up with the idea, that doesn't mean Congress won't be left holding the bag. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told POLITICO: "Congress is complicit so of course, we will get our share of the blame," he said.
5. Democrats and Republicans: We might be lawmakers, but we're not leaders.
New revenue. Entitlement reform. Smart savings. Obama said "all the right words" when he talked about the current budget situation during last week's State of the Union, said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).
Now if only Congress could step up and show some leadership. But Carper, the Homeland Security Committee chairman who served eight years as governor of Delaware, said that's easier said than done for the legislative branch.
"As one centrist Democrat, I want us to do entitlement reform, I want us to raise revenue. And I want us to take [GAO's high-risk list] that lays out these massive savings," Carper said in an interview. "It's just harder for a legislative body to do that. The nature of legislative bodies is to not take that kind of leadership, but we need to."
6. House GOP: Obama doesn't really want to stop it.
Study how the administration's rhetoric has changed, and Republicans say they have proof the White House is exploiting sequestration at this very late hour after months insisting things would never get this far. Just look at what Obama said of the spending cuts during an October presidential debate -- "It will not happen" -- and compare that with the dire warnings now of job losses and other potential calamities that are coming from the Oval Office.
"They could bring certainty to it, but it's to their advantage to leave it uncertain and make them afraid it's going to be you," House GOP Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford of Oklahoma told POLITICO last week.
7. House and Senate Republicans: There, there, it won't be that bad.
Republicans make varying levels of this argument: The spending cuts need to happen and can be absorbed into the economy without the sting that Obama and his Democratic allies warn.
Boehner told a local Ohio television news crew last week that while he didn't want the cuts to happen, "we've got a serious spending problem and it is time for us to deal with it honestly."
Sen. Rand Paul amplified the message during the tea party's response to Obama's State of the Union speech. "Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America's credit rating," the Kentucky Republican said.
8. Both sides: Gee, we didn't think it'd come to this.
This is the close-your-eyes-and-wish-upon-a-star explanation for what's happening. It's been nearly 20 months since the Budget Control Act became law. The thinking goes that with so much lead time, even a dysfunctional Washington would get its act together and find some way out of this mess. After all, that's why the cuts were designed to hit where it hurts both parties: the Pentagon and domestic agencies.
"I wouldn't have guessed anything like this a year ago," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a 28-year veteran of Congress, told POLITICO. Asked if he thought the crisis would have been resolved by now, he replied, "Yes."
9. Both sides: Not our job to wear the green eyeshades.
With sequester getting closer, some Democrats and Republicans are calling for a quick-fix bill to pass that would give agency chiefs flexibility to decipher which programs, projects and activities take the spending cuts, rather than an indiscriminate across-the-board whack for everything.
On the House Armed Services Committee, members on both sides of the aisle have said they'd like to see Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) move legislation along those lines giving discretion to Pentagon leaders. "I'd rather we manage it in more of an intelligent fashion than just say we're cutting it," freshman Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) told POLITICO.
But with the deadline nearly here, critics say giving the agencies more wiggle room won't solve the problem. "To just tweak it is not enough to save three-quarters of a million jobs," Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) told reporters Wednesday during a conference call organized by House Democratic leaders.
10. Both sides: Too late to stop it so we'll clean it up later.
Reality seems to be setting in that there's not enough time to undo the sequester before it hits at the end of next week. Enter this explanation for what's happening: Pass legislation after the deadline that fixes the blunt nature of the cuts.
Since sequestration stretches out over 10 years, there'd be time for the key committees with experience on different government programs to propose alternative and more targeted reductions.
"The answer to this is to do vigorous oversight because no one in our party, no matter what label you put on them, believes every dollar is spent wisely," said Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), a sophomore who this year landed a seat on the coveted Ways and Means Committee. "I got to believe there are folks here in the House that have a good idea what's working and what's not working."
Some Democrats also say the cuts may be necessary -- if only to spark action later. "I don't want the sequestration to happen, but having said that, I think some of [the cuts] may have to roll in before people realize compromise is going to have to be a necessity," said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who fears cuts to the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and its B-2 Spirit stealth bomber program.
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 5:24 p.m. on February 21, 2013.
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