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GOP On The Sequester: Many Messages But Mostly The Same Point

House Speaker John Boehner speaks to the media after a meeting with President Obama on Friday.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
House Speaker John Boehner speaks to the media after a meeting with President Obama on Friday.

In the days leading up to the sequester taking effect Friday, Democrats on Capitol Hill had a very unified message.

"We're seeking to provide the American people with a balanced approach. Again, that's what the American people want," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at a press conference.

Talk to any Democrat and you'd get essentially the same answer: The sequester is bad, and they want to replace it with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases through closing loopholes.

But the GOP was less focused. Listening to congressional Republicans this week, it was hard to tell at times whether they thought the sequester was a good thing or a bad thing; whether they thought it should happen or not; and whether it would be painful or just a tiny trim.

A few examples:

-- House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, at a press conference Thursday: "Listen, it is the president's sequester. It was his team that insisted upon it. ... I didn't like it anymore than anybody else liked it."

-- Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio at a Wednesday event called Conversations with Conservatives: "The sequester should happen. That's going to happen in two days. That is good. First significant savings for the American taxpayer in a long, long — since I've been here. I've been here six years — first time we've actually saved the taxpayers some real money. That's going to happen."

-- And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a floor speech: "Remember, we're only talking about cutting 2 to 3 percent of the budget. Any business owner or middle-class parent will tell you it's completely ridiculous to think Washington can't find a better way to cut 2 or 3 percent of the federal budget at a time when we're $16 trillion in debt."

It sounds like a contradiction, but they're all taking different approaches to more or less the same point: The sequester wasn't Republicans' idea. They like the $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years that it brings; they just don't like the across-the-board nature of the cuts. So they would be open to making them more flexible or smarter. And also, they'd like even more cuts in the future.

It doesn't fit on a bumper sticker.

Add to the message muddle pro-defense Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who are so concerned about cuts to military spending in the sequester that they weren't interested in toeing the party line.

"I think the top-line number is the problem. No matter how flexible you are, I think it cuts too much over time out of defense," Graham says. "I believe our commanders that the cumulative effect of sequestration is bad for defense."

Graham was one of nine Republicans who broke with their party and voted against a sequester alternative bill that would have allowed the president more flexibility in making the cuts.

On Friday, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, even went so far as to say that if there were an effort to fully repeal the sequester when it came to defense cuts, he'd support it, "if that's the only option."

"$500 billion cuts out of our national security, and we're talking about readiness, and now we're starting to talk about lives," he said.

But McKeon says there's no chance of repeal now. A few weeks ago, he was so disgusted with his colleagues' willingness to cut the military, he invoked a party hero.

"I think Reagan [would] turn over in his grave," he said. "The party of defense?"

It reflects a divide in the party between old-school pro-defense Republicans and those with more libertarian leanings, who favor small government in all areas.

Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, has long said he would take the sequester over many of the alternatives.

"When you compare that to a postponement or to neuter some of these cuts, take the sequester, you bet," he says. "I'm one saying, hey, if we can't get dollar-for-dollar cuts elsewhere, significant cuts, then go forward with the sequester."

Of course, message discipline isn't everything. Democrats didn't get anything they publicly claimed to want. The sequester is in effect with no clear path to fix it and definitely no path to more revenue.

And depending on which Republican you're talking to, they got exactly what they wanted.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.