WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans appeared flummoxed Tuesday by the impending sequestration budget cuts, unable to offer a consensus alternative and arguing that slashing $85 billion this fiscal year may be smart.
"We haven't decided yet how many alternatives we will offer later this week -- that matter is still under discussion in our conference," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McConnell had floated the idea of writing legislation that would keep cuts in place, but would give President Barack Obama's administration "flexibility" to implement them in the best way. That plan did not fly, however, as the Kentucky Republican ran into opposition from members who don't want to cede the legislative branch's traditional authority to the president.
"I was speaking for myself," McConnell explained to reporters. "There are some members of our conference who are suspicious that the administration taking advantage of such flexibility would seek to punish their political enemies. There are differences of opinion about that."
The lack of a consensus option for Senate Republicans has threatened to hurt the party's already delicate negotiating position in the final days before sequestration starts on March 1.
With House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) insisting that the Senate move before he considers a bill, the spotlight has moved squarely to the upper chamber. Top Democrats said they expected more than 50 votes for their party's $85 billion, 10-year sequestration-replacement option, evenly split between revenue hikes and spending cuts (with half the cuts coming from defense).
Republicans are under pressure to follow suit with a plan that gets similar support within their ranks. Neither will likely get the 60 votes needed to pass.
Nevertheless, some Senate Republicans late Tuesday confirmed that members of the minority were far from reaching an agreement.
"That's the problem," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). "There's several alternatives that are being weighed. I think we've got to define the universe that we're talking about here."
McConnell's option to grant executive agencies the flexibility to direct the cuts appeared Tuesday to be the most likely to be put forward, in spite of the internal resistance. Some of his members backed the idea strongly, downplaying fears of Obama hurting red states.
"So what? You're talking penny ante political mischief," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). "Do I really care about this when it comes to saving our nation? No. I don't care about that."
In response to McConnell, the White House moved quickly to say it opposed the approach, as did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who filed a motion Tuesday evening to hold the first vote on the Democratic plan on Thursday.
In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, senior administration officials insisted that giving the president the flexibility to choose the cuts wouldn't diminish the unfortunate macroeconomic impact of the sequester. Most of the pain would be absorbed in the private sector, after all, one official noted, speaking on condition of anonymity. And because the cuts are so heavy on the defense and discretionary spending fronts, it is virtually impossible to separate the most vital programs.
McConnell's office, nevertheless, pushed the idea as a practical alternative that may have a marginal benefit.
"Just last week, [Transportation Secretary Ray] LaHood said they were looking at ways to reduce spending, but their hands were tied because the law didn’t give them any flexibility," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell. "So we offer them flexibility -- now they say it doesn’t matter? Give me a break."
The White House wasn't alone in need of convincing, however. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Politico that he did not want to hand over his constitutional obligations to the president. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) echoed those sentiments. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was even more candid, saying that Republicans would just "criticize everything" Obama chooses to cut, once he's granted that authority.
By Tuesday afternoon, the lack of cohesion within the GOP ranks had frustrated senators.
"I really couldn't tell you," said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). "I don't quite understand, except that the ideas are sufficiently different." Crapo added that some senators supported the flexibility approach, while others wanted to identify specific savings.
But Crapo argued that Democrats had it easier in coming up with a proposal, because the majority's position was mandated by Obama.
"They have the presidency, and the president is saying what he wants the position to be for the alternative," Crapo said. "So they have the ability to have a designated leader who says this is the position for our party. On the Republican side, with the Republicans not controlling the presidency, there's a lot more diversity of opinion."
The disarray left GOP leaders arguing a fallback position: that sequestration won't be so bad.
"We're still going to spend more money next year than this year. these are things we can live with," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).