Government Shutdown Negotiations Stuck On Sequestration

10/12/2013 09:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2013
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- As the United States government approaches a deadline for raising the debt limit and the government shutdown nears its second week, Senate Democrats are taking a stand on sequestration.

The party’s leadership rejected an offer from Senate Republicans on Saturday morning mainly because the proposal locked in those budget cuts for too long.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called it the “single biggest sticking point” in negotiations, while his counterpart in leadership, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) deemed it the central dispute.

“The parties have different views. We passed a budget of $1.058 trillion and they passed one -- the Ryan budget -- [at] $988 [billion],” Schumer said. “So that is a serious issue.”

Democrats' stand over sequestration is a nice surprise for some progressive members who worried leadership would cave in this area. But instead, they were emboldened after polling showed them with the upper hand in budget fights. Democrats also noted that they, too, were concerned about the severity of the cuts.

Under a Senate Republican proposal crafted by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the government would have been funded at $988 billion for the next six months. Many Senate Democrats said they could live with that number -- just not for that long.

“If we can have a short term [continuing resolution at $988 billion] to get us through, say, the first of December, that is fine with me,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told The Huffington Post.

The question, said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), was: “Are we locked into the number for what amounts to the next year, or are we going to be able to get to the point where there are budget negotiations that can work with that number?”

The concern for Harkin and King, among others, is that the party could sacrifice too much negotiating power by signing off on Collins’ plan. Under the Budget Control Act, annual spending will be reduced to $967 billion around Jan. 15, regardless of the budget at the time. Democrats want to avoid that. They've concluded that it would be a misstep to put off a motivating moment (such as a budget deal ending) for those negotiations for six months, or to go on record supporting a six-month, $988 billion budget.

“[Waiting] would dis-incentivize the negotiation. It would put Democrats on a weaker ground,” said a top Senate Democratic aide. “If, in the next few days, we break the will of [Speaker] Boehner and Senate Republicans, and we pass both a clean CR and debt limit increase, I think that there is a belief within the Senate Democratic caucus that there is absolutely no way that they would have any leverage to make major demands in future negotiations about this, that we would be in a better position.”

Hints that Republicans may end up playing ball on sequestration emerged this week. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hinted that he would be willing to trade sequestration relief for entitlement reforms. Democrats aren’t ready to make that exchange yet because they view it as imbalanced, and because they want to get through the current crisis first.

During talks Saturday morning, aides with knowledge of the meeting say, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) implored her colleagues that it would be a misstep to agree to the spending levels in Collins’ plan. Many lawmakers emerged from that meeting calling Murray’s presentation convincing.

“Patty Murray makes a very important point,” said Durbin. “If she is bound going into a budget conference by the Paul Ryan number, where is her bargaining power? Some Senate Republicans were insisting on that. But that’s unfair.”

White House officials, meanwhile, have signaled to Senate Democrats that waging a fight over sequestration during current talks is acceptable. An administration official told The Huffington Post that while they found the Collins’ proposal “constructive,” they had concerns about the spending levels.

With just five days until the debt ceiling deadline, the party is now holding out. The goal, ultimately, is to produce a deal that funds the government at $988 billion, but only for a short period of time, and to include a framework in which both chambers negotiate to replace sequestration more fully.

“We clear back to a clean state and start where we were before,” explained Harkin. "That’s where the appropriations and the budget negotiations need to start from. Patty Murray should start from negotiating from our standpoint – $1.058 trillion. And if they want to start from their standpoint, fine.”

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