WASHINGTON — Driven by frustration over deficits and debt, Republican conservatives are pushing a politically risky move to permit painfully large automatic spending cuts to strike the Pentagon and domestic programs alike in an effort to force Democrats into making concessions on the budget.
It’s a remarkable turnabout from last year, when GOP leaders were among the loudest voices warning of dire consequences for the military and the economy if more than $100 billion worth of across-the-board cuts were allowed to take effect. Now, even as defense hawks fume, Republicans see the strategy as their best chance of wringing cuts from costly government benefit programs like Medicare that President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies have been reluctant to touch.
The move is fraught with risk. Some $43 billion would be cut from the Pentagon budget between March and October if battling Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on an alternative. Equal cuts would hit domestic programs, although the health care programs that are major drivers of future deficits are largely exempt.
The automatic cuts, known as a “sequester” in Washington-speak, are the penalty for the failures of the 2011 deficit “supercommittee” and subsequent rounds of budget talks to produce an agreement.
Along with the threatened expiration of Bush-era tax cuts, the sequester was a major element of the so-called fiscal cliff crisis that gripped the country as the new year dawned. While most of the tax cuts — except for upper-bracket income — were made permanent, negotiators could only agree on a two-month reprieve to the sequester after finding $24 billion in replacement money that reduced this year’s round of cuts from $109 billion to $85 billion. Eight more years of cuts, totaling almost $1 trillion, still remain.
Last year, Republicans issued dire warnings of the impact the cuts would have. Twice last year, House Republicans passed legislation to replace this year’s round of cuts with alternatives like curbing the growth of food stamps and requiring federal workers to contribute more to their pensions.
Democrats instead put their faith in year-end, high-level budget talks involving President Barack Obama and Boehner, but those talks failed. Later, successful negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., solved the tax issue but produced only the two-month fix for the sequester.