It is starting to look less likely that Congress will reach a deal that prevents automatic spending cuts from taking effect March 1, so politicians are finding the strength to accept the things they cannot change, and change the things they cannot accept. That means accepting the sequester but changing who gets blamed for it.
According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, the White House and House Republicans were struggling to come up with an agreement to raise the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, the White House suggested the sequester — a package of automatic spending cuts that were so horrible they would inspire a bipartisan supercommittee to cut a better deal. The sequester passed with a majority of Republicans; Paul Ryan said it "represents a victory for those committed to controlling government spending and growing our economy." But the supercommittee failed. During the fiscal cliff talks in December, Congress decided to deal with the Bush tax cuts and delayed dealing with the sequester for a few months. That is how we arrived here, with the Pentagon delaying the deployment of one aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf — where we usually have two to act as deterrence to Iran — and the Army threatening to stop hiring troops' spouses for civilian jobs on base and stop funding things like the Army Substance Abuse Program and the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program.
Naturally, no one wants to be blamed for those things. On Tuesday, Obama gave a speech, surrounded by first responders, demanding Congress act to avoid the sequester. And he not-so-subtly suggested that the blame for any cuts going into effect belongs to the House Republicans. "Are you willing to see a bunch of emergency responders lose their jobs because you want to protect some special interest tax loophole?" he asked. "This is not an abstraction," he added. To get a deal done in time, Obama pushed aside the new Simpson-Bowles idea and suggested a smaller plan, like the one proposed by Senate Democrats which would create yet another deadline sometime down the road. To get Republicans to accept something like that, they'd have to believe they'd have a better chance of getting more spending cuts without tax increases than they do right now.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said earlier this month that the idea Obama alone wanted the sequester "is a fanciful confection." Meanwhile, House Republicans have tried to start a not-so-catchy Twitter hashtag, #Obamaquester. Republican Sens. Roy Blunt and John Thune used it, so did House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. The hashtag showed up at press conferences, at right. But the campaign hasn't entirely been a success. Republican Rep. Justin Amash told BuzzFeed it was so 2008, and besides, "The debt ceiling deal in 2011 was agreed to by Republicans and Democrats, and regardless of who came up with the sequester, they all voted for it. So, you can't vote for something and, with a straight face, go blame the other guy for its existence in law." And Paul Ryan's budget might rely on the sequester to balance within 10 years.
The things being proposed to stop the sequester don't seem intended to actually stop the sequester. Last week, Senate Democrats made public a plan with $110 billion in targeted cuts, which would pay for a year of the sequester, but has little chance of passing. "This bill is an important chess piece," Sen. Chuck Schumer said. The sequester replacement Republicans passed also has little chance of becoming law. Sen. Lindsey Graham, maybe just for fun, proposed finding the $1.2 trillion in savings in Obamacare instead.
The last two years of fiscal emergencies all come down whether some tax increases are included with spending cuts to reduce the deficits. Obama wants some new revenue; Republicans want none. Both sides keep pushing these deadlines down the road because they hope they'll be in a better negotiating position in the future — Republicans had hoped they'd be negotiating with a President-elect Mitt Romney in December, and Obama didn't want a debt limit fight during the election campaign.