WASHINGTON – With the "sequester" cuts all but certain, congressional Republicans are turning to the next battle with President Obama: locking in the cuts for the rest of the year in a strategy that is likely to face opposition in the Senate, and which could lead to a government shutdown.
House Republicans meeting behind closed doors Wednesday appeared to coalesce around the next phase of their austerity campaign, despite divisions among lawmakers who have struggled to find a common message on the sequester cuts. Republican leaders are preparing legislation to be voted on next week.
"It’s important for us to lock in the first round of savings," said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “You start to force Washington to live within its means."
Any hope of stopping the sequester reductions has largely been dashed. The deadline is Friday. The Senate is still preparing to vote on a pair of alternatives, but the partisan bills are not expected to achieve the 60-vote threshold needed for passage.
Instead, Republican lawmakers are pushing ahead to the next deadline, when a stopgap measure to fund the government expires in less than four weeks, on March 27.
In a move that is all but certain to provoke Democrats in the Senate, House Republicans are preparing legislation that would fund routine government operations at the new, lower level reflected in the sequester. A companion provision will restructure the cuts to defense, military construction and veterans accounts, shifting reductions away from key programs.
If approved, the bill would essentially ensure the sequester cuts continue through the end of the fiscal year.
How the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill will respond is not clear, but Democrats registered initial disapproval Wednesday as Republicans opened the new front.
Neither party appears interested in a wholesale government shutdown, which happened in the 1990s after Republicans gained control of the House.
Democrats, though, have little interest in helping Republicans cut government spending – or in protecting defense accounts, as House Republicans propose, without also providing leeway to other domestic programs. Obama has rejected any attempt to rearrange the cuts.
At the same time, the bill may expose divisions between Republican deficit hawks in the House who want to lock in the cuts and GOP defense hawks in the Senate who want to preserve Pentagon funds.
House Republicans see the next step as crucial to their multi-pronged strategy to fight for cuts at every pressure point this year.
"It’s right in line with our plan,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), another member of the conservative flank, who said there was widespread support for the strategy at the meeting. “Not one dissent.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) met two weeks ago to discuss the bill, and Obama has called congressional leaders to the White House for a talk Friday.