WASHINGTON -- Democrats have come to accept that the sequester budget cuts are here to stay – at least for months, if not longer -- and Republicans have come to welcome them as a victory. The GOP might like to see more targeted cuts, and less of an impact on defense programs, but the $85 billion in spending reductions that went into effect Friday at least get the federal budget going in the direction they would prefer: down.
The new debate, as I wrote Sunday, is over how hard the cuts will hit and whether the political fallout is mild enough that the reductions become permanent, of if the reaction pushes lawmakers to eventually undo some cuts and replace them with new taxes. As is often the case, the lawmakers who eventually get put on the spot could be Philadelphia-area House Republicans who represent moderate districts, including several whose economies are closely linked with the military.
Democrats are arguing that the sequester will become a political pressure point when federal workers and employees at big military contractors start losing paychecks and spending less in their local communities, creating an economic ripple effect.
When real people begin seeing the consequences in every day life, South Jersey Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.) said in an interview Friday, “there will be political consequences.”
The situation could prove particularly difficult, Andrews said, for Republicans who represent districts with large military installations. “Our hope is that as more Republicans start to see this pain in their own districts, that they will choose bipartisan compromise over this absolutist position,” Gene Sperling, the director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, said Sunday on Meet the Press.
Locally, it’s easy to see some House Republicans falling into a tough spot politically, if the cuts are as difficult as Democrats predict. Boeing has a major facility in Delaware County – U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan’s district – that could be affected. In New Jersey, Congressmen Jon Runyan and Frank LoBiondo represent communities around the McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst joint base in South Jersey. Runyan’s district counts military contractors as a major employer and LoBiondo’s is home to the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center. Cut pay or jobs at any of those sites, and the effects could become quite visible to their constituents.
Each of those lawmakers are also seen as more moderate Republicans willing, at times, to make deals with the White House. They are also often pressured by liberal groups who need to win some GOP votes to get through the House. Runyan and Meehan are also perennial political targets, making every decision they make, and the consequences of the sequester, fraught with electoral implications.
Already Obama allies are talking up his effort to flip the House in 2014 in order to advance an agenda that Republicans have resisted. If those plans go through, and even if they don’t, Meehan and Runyan could be on the front lines of the Democratic push.
But their fellow Republicans are working on ways to ease the pressure. The House plans to vote on a GOP budget plan this week – to fund the government through Sept. 30 – that would include some flexibility on the budget cuts hitting the military (U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, a Chester County Republican, mentioned this idea last week). Democrats who control the Senate might want similar provisions for domestic programs in their version of the bill. If those things come to pass, it could take some of the heat out of the sequester debate.
And if the cuts – scheduled to continue on to be $1.2 trillion over 10 years -- come and go and few people notice, Republicans will have a ready-made example to point to for their argument that the public would be just fine with less government. In that case, people such as Meehan and Runyan could claim credit for helping usher in a slimmer government and resisting more taxes.
But if the cuts build over months, and truly hurt, as Andrews and the White House predict, expect another push to try to reverse them and for Democrats to highlight local Republicans' stands.