After Supercommittee Failure, Will Congress Duck the Consequences?

The panel's gridlock will trigger an automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts -- but will lawmakers wriggle out of them?

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The supercommittee's failure to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction measures has paved the way for an election-year battle by Republicans to rewrite the sequester rules and protect defense spending.

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), a vocal opponent to the sequester from the onset, said on Monday that he will introduce legislation in the coming days to prevent the cuts from taking effect in their current form.

"I will not be the Armed Services chairman who presides over crippling our military. I will not let these sequestration cuts stand," he said in a statement. A spokesman for McKeon did not respond to a request for comment on how McKeon specifically intends to undo the defense sequester.

According to the Budget Control Act approved in August in a compromise to raise the debt ceiling, an automatic $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts split evenly between defense and non-defense discretionary spending would take effect on Jan. 1, 2013. The split was done purposefully with the intention of forcing Congress to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction on its own, which lawmakers have proved incapable of doing. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that defense spending would be reduced between 8.5 percent to 10 percent from 2013 to 2021, saving an estimated $454 billion.

The path to altering the sequester trigger is a complicated one despite widespread opposition to the defense cuts from congressional Republicans and rhetorical support from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has warned the cuts could inflict undue harm on the U.S military.

Senate Democrats are likely to take their cues from the White House. President Obama has previously suggested he could veto any attempt to alter the sequester rules, but now that supercommittee failure is a reality, the commander-in-chief could back off that threat as he faces his own re-election realities and a public second-guessing by his secretary of defense.

Already, the GOP presidential field is using the sequester to attack Obama on defense. "Our military gets the job done in life-threatening conditions every day, it's time the president and Congress get serious about cutting federal spending and balancing the federal budget," Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement.

Like most Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) does not support altering the sequester ratio of cuts, but a Democratic leadership aide acknowledged that if the White House did not support the defense cuts going in to effect, it would be easier to reach a 60-vote threshold to rewrite the trigger rules. If the White House stands firm in opposition to undoing the current sequester rule, then Reid will hold the line.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky., supports altering the sequester rule, but unless the White House is willing to negotiate, he will be hard-pressed to find the 60-votes he would need to rewrite current law.

In the House it would be easier for the GOP-controlled chamber to approve legislation altering the Budget Control Act, but not without some pushback. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he feels obligated to honor the $1.2 trillion threshold for cuts - and his party will not stand for lowering the overall cuts - but he has not been equally committed to upholding the current 50-50 ratio of cuts.

McKeon is a close ally of Boehner, and he has privately assured the chairman that he will work to that end. A number of House Democrats, including Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), have voiced concerns about the defense cuts and would be amendable to renegotiating the rules.

Unless the Senate agrees to alter the law, House Republicans will be stuck with the law as is. This has given congressional Democrats some hope that they will be able to use the threat of sequester as a potential negotiating tool on the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire right as the defense cuts will begin to take effect. Democrats would likely be willing to give on the defense cuts if Republicans were willing to negotiate on tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans.

But that plan would take compromise, and so far this Congress has proven incapable of striking any kind of bargains, let alone grand ones.

Image credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Susan Davis is a correspondent (Congress) for National Journal.

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