New GOP strategy: focus on sequester

Vote to raise debt ceiling would shift talks to automatic budget cuts.

A new House Republican plan could reduce the threat of a government default but increase the possibility of sweeping, mandatory budget cuts that could hurt Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and other Defense facilities.

House Republican leaders Friday announced plans for a three-month extension of the nation’s debt ceiling in order to avoid the possibility of the federal government not being able to pay its bills.

Republicans initially had three potential fights over spending brewing: one over whether to raise the debt ceiling, one over whether to renew a bill that pays for the federal government and one over scheduled cuts to federal discretionary spending, including Defense cuts.

House Republicans had talked of declining to raise the $16 trillion debt ceiling in order to force Obama to reduce spending. But after financial markets reacted squeamishly to that possibility, the GOP signaled a change in strategy at a retreat in Williamsburg, Va., where they unveiled a new plan to raise the debt ceiling for just three months.

Their announcement came days before the Air Force is expected to lay out what cuts it will impose throughout the Air Force Materiel Command, which is headquartered at Wright-Patterson. Possibilities include a civilian hiring freeze, mandatory furloughs and a stop on certain travel expenditures.

Assuming the entire Republican caucus supports the debt ceiling plan — and that’s unclear — the next battleground would shift to either the pending automatic spending cuts or the threat of a government shutdown.

In the first scenario, Congress could allow $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts over the next decade to go through. The cuts would be sweeping and across-the-board, and economists worry that they could damage the recovering economy. An economist from George Mason University predicted the cuts could cost Ohio 21,280 Defense-related jobs and a total of 40,403 jobs. In all, the economist Stephen Fuller predicted, the cuts could cost the nation 2.1 million jobs.

In the second scenario, House Republicans could refuse to renew the current continuing resolution — the measure that pays for the federal government operations at 2012 levels, meaning a potential government shutdown akin to what occurred in 1995 and 1996.

Both could play out beginning in March, as a series of key deadlines hit. In a nutshell: It’s March madness, albeit with less potential for office betting and more potential for government chaos.

Republican lawmakers say they don’t want to see the government shut down. But they say they might have to let it happen in order to demonstrate how serious they are about spending cuts.

“Clearly there would be a lot of pain for a lot of people if the government shut down,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington. “But if it really opened the president’s eyes to the fact we have to deal with spending, I would consider it.”

Rep. Joyce Beatty, a Democrat from suburban Columbus, said she is optimistic Congress will meet its upcoming deadlines.

“I think it would be irresponsible for us to say it’s OK for us to create fiscal cliffs and just go off them,” she said. “That’s not what the American public is asking us to do.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., hinted in an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month that the true lever for Republicans was not the debt ceiling, but the automatic sequester cuts slated now to take effect in March. His comment, “I got that in my back pocket,” suggested that he would let the cuts go into effect in order to extract further cuts from entitlement programs.

Several House Republicans have said that letting the mandatory cuts go into effect might be the easiest way to begin to address spending.

But that plan has opposition, and not just from Democrats. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said the sequester cuts for Defense would be “devastating” and have a deep impact on the Miami Valley.

Turner, whose district includes Wright-Patterson, voted against raising the debt ceiling in 2011. He also voted against the compromise that created the mandatory cuts.

“I think the president holds all the cards in this,” Turner said. “He has to come forward with a plan. But he has shown no willingness to do anything to end the trillion dollar deficits.”

Rep. Pat Tiberi, a suburban Columbus Republican, acknowledged the sequester cuts “will be painful.” But he said they are probably the best leverage Republicans have in negotiating with Obama.

“I would say we have the most leverage on the sequester because we know the White House doesn’t want to see it go into effect,” he said. “The sequester doesn’t fix our structural debt problem, but it’s the strongest piece of leverage for us to try to force the White House into acknowledging that reality.”

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