Fear Is the Answer to the Spendocalypse

We're one week away from the sequester, and Republicans and Democrats are panicking about it actually hitting and over their side having to cave. But fear is a good sign, right? The fiscal cliff proved it can force a deal. Here's the current state of panic.

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We're one week away from the sequester, and Republicans and Democrats are panicking at both the thought of the sequester actually hitting and the reality that their their side might have to cave on taxes. The weak spots in each coalition are Republican defense hawks and Democrats from red states. But we have to take fear as a good sign, right? As we saw with the fiscal cliff, fear is the emotional state most likely to push politicians into making a deal these days. Here are the signs of sequester panic heading into the weekend:

Pentagon-loving Republicans are nervous that Pentagon cuts will actually happen.

In 2011, when the sequester monster was created, "Party leaders sold the cuts, in part, by assuring the rank-and-file that they would never happen because negotiators would be able to work out a solution sparing the Pentagon," The Wall Street Journal's Patrick O'Connor reports. That promise has been broken. So while GOP leaders are working to project a united front on the sequester, some Republicans want them to work harder to stop the defense cuts from taking effect, even if it means raising tax revenue. If Democrats offer a compromise — even one that includes closing tax loopholes — "I want our leadership to consider it and not reject it outright," Virginia Republican Rep. Scott Rigell told the Journal.

Conservatives are nervous about defense hawks' nervousness.

Conservatives have shifted to arguing that the sequester won't actually be that bad, at least compared to raising taxes. That includes defense cuts. The Pentagon likes to protect its budget by claiming it would have to sacrifice really important projects — right now it's sending an aircraft carrier to the Persion Gulf as a check on Iran — instead of more wasteful programs, The Washington Examiner's Byron York writes. And while Congress has passed legislation requiring the Defense Department to audit its spending, Congress has failed to do so. "It's difficult to take these doomsday scenarios seriously when the Pentagon can't even audit its own books,"  a spokesman for Republican Sen. Tom Coburn tells York. A Senate aide adds: "If you laid off these people, or you diverted this aircraft carrier, then why did you go ahead and travel to a conference in Bermuda or continue to pay contractors' inflated salaries?"

Obama's afraid enough to turn his cabinet into an anti-sequester campaign team.

The White House initially told Democrats in the executive branch to stay quiet about the sequester, but they've canceled that order, Politico's Darren Samuelsohn reports. Cabinet officials are being dispatched across the country to talk about how awful the sequester would be. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went to Iowa to say the cuts would hurt rural areas. Congress heard testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The State Department, NASA, and the FBI sent 20 letters to the Senate appropriations committee. The White House told health care experts they have a "critical window" to "make noise" between the day the sequester takes effect and the day Congress has to pass a government funding bill, March 27. Samulsohn suggests that this might reveal Obama's ultimate fear in the spendocalpyse: Without more people demanding that the sequester be stopped, Obama might get more blame.

On Thursday, Obama talked about pressuring Republicans on Al Sharpton's radio show: "I don't know if they're going to move... And that's what we're going to have to try to keep pushing over the next seven or eight days."

The GOP might get scared into a last-minute replacement.

Republicans are discussing an alternative sequester, in which the cuts kick in but federal agencies could decide where to cut and what to spare until the end of the fiscal year in September, Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler reports. Then Congress would get to decide where the cuts fall. Karl Rove has floated the idea, and so has The National Review.

Liberals are scared the last-minute replacement will seduce red-state Democrats.

Some Democrats think Republicans have specifically designed the idea to appeal to red state Democrats, The Washington Post's Greg Sargent reports. Don't be fooled, he warns.

This would signal to Republicans that Dems are prepared to accept a cuts-only approach — making it impossible for them to renew any demands for new revenues later. Dems are eying the coming government shutdown as the next chance to force a GOP surrender on revenues. Signaling now that Dems are prepared to drop the demand for more revenues — even temporarily — would be folly.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.