Pressure is starting to build on both sides of the political aisle to avert the massive, $1.2 trillion across-the-board cuts set to kick in starting March 1 as a result of the looming sequester. But how did this all happen?
In his September 2012 book, The Price of Politics, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward provided the most comprehensive, behind-the-scenes look at how the very people trying to stop it now are the same ones who proposed the idea and signed it into law in the summer of 2011.
According to Woodward, the idea started with the White House and President Barack Obama. Republicans voted in majorities for the bill containing sequestration. Both sides are now blaming one another for letting it potentially happen.
Woodward detailed a summer of 2011 meeting between Obama and Congressional leaders, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and White House national economic council director Gene Sperling, among others. Woodward paints the White House as coming up with the idea of a compulsory mechanism to trigger spending cuts — the sequester — during a summer while House Speaker John Boehner was initially “nervous” about it.
“A trigger would lock in our commitment,” Sperling explained. “Even though we disagree on the composition of how to get to the cuts, it would lock us in. The form of the automatic sequester would punish both sides. We’d have to September to avert any sequester”— a legal obligation to make spending cuts.
“Then we could use a medium or big deal to force tax reform,” Obama said optimistically. “If this is a trigger for tax reform,” Boehner said, “this could be worth discussing. But as a budget tool, it’s too complicated. I’m very nervous about this.”
Later in the book, Woodward described Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s terrified reaction when White House chief of staff Jack Lew and director of legislative affairs Rob Nabors told him about the idea of sequestration:
“We have an idea for the trigger,” Lew said.
“What’s the idea?” Reid asked skeptically. “Sequestration.”
Reid bent down and put his head between his knees, almost as if he were going to throw up or was having a heart attack. He sat back up and looked at the ceiling. “A couple of weeks ago,” he said, “my staff said to me that there is one more possibile [sic]” enforcement mechanism: sequestration. He said he told them, “Get the hell out of here. That’s insane. The White House surely will come up with a plan that will save the day. And you come to me with sequestration?”
Reid, though, warmed up to the idea when Lew and Nabors told him that the cuts would be half on defence and half on non-defence spending. But the thought was that the “super committee” on debt reduction would be so turned off by the “bomb that no one wanted to drop” that they would come up with their own spending cuts. (They did not end up doing that.)
Boehner was skittish, but Republicans eventually agreed to a deal with the sequester as a trigger for action rather than agree to a deal with increased revenues.
The deal eventually passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. 174 of 240 House Republicans supported it, and Senate Republicans voted for it by a 28-19 margin. The support from Democrats was lower in the House (a 95-95 split) but supported it in the Senate 45-6.
In the end, Boehner assured House Republicans that the sequester would never happen.
“Guys, this would be devastating to defence,” he said, according to Woodward. “This would be devastating, from their perspective, on their domestic priorities. This is never going to happen.”
Woodward’s book provides the bottom line on the sequester: Obama and the White House proposed it, Republicans overwhelmingly voted for it, and now both sides don’t want it to happen but refuse to budge from their stances.
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