02/01/2013 10:30 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Did Hagel's Nomination Make The Sequester A Fait Accompli?

My interview with Yuval Levin is up on the site this morning. Levin, a policy expert, influential conservative writer, and an ally of Paul Ryan, says Ryan's Medicare reforms that he has pushed for the last few years are still the GOP's best way forward on the issue of entitlements and debt, even if Obamacare is implemented. He explains why Ryan, the Republican House Budget Committee chairman from Wisconsin, thinks Obamacare will "collapse under its own weight."

During our interview, Levin said something on the sequester that I thought was interesting but which didn't fit into the story about Ryan and Medicare. Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense by the president, Levin said, essentially guaranteed that House Republicans will let the sequester happen.

The sequester is set to hit March 1, and would restrain the federal budget over the next decade by roughly $1 trillion. Half would come from defense spending, and half from non-defense. It wouldn't actually cut current spending levels, but would rather reduce future projected increases in spending. But for massive enterprises like the Pentagon, losing $45 billion out of next year's budget is a big deal, especially because the scale of what they do requires so much advance planning. Even if the money being taken out of the budget is not technically a cut, it functions like one because they have been planning on using that money for some time.

Levin's theory is that "the Hagel nomination really changed the thinking of the defense hawks" by sending a signal that President Obama and his new defense secretary (if he's confirmed) don't really care whether the Pentagon gets cut by $500 billion over the next decade.

"They've been working with [outgoing defense secretary] Leon Panetta who has been saying, 'The Pentagon can't really live with the sequester levels of spending. We understand we need to reduce spending so let's figure out how to redirect this.' The president himself has been fairly open to that. And now it just doesn't seem like that's the case anymore," Levin said.

"So that House Republicans would have to fight among themselves about defense spending and figure it out, and I just think it's not going to happen. If the Pentagon doesn't want it then it's hard to imagine a civil war among House Republicans to give the Pentagon money that it doesn't want," he said.

Not all the defense hawks are quiet. Sen.'s John McCain (R-Ariz) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) sounded an alarm this week. So it may be that Levin's premise is wrong. But it's an interesting one.

He also said he thinks that House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) retreat on the fiscal cliff has put Ryan back in a more central and advantageous position than he was before, has reduced the president's role and his leverage, and has put the GOP on more solid footing regarding their House majority.

"So what is the 2014 election congressional election going to be about? I think the Democrats want it to be about the House Republicans are chaotic and crazy and they're preventing Washington from getting anything done. I think House Republicans want it to be about Senate Democrats are dysfunctional and irresponsible, and they're driving us into debt. I think that this move on debt ceiling gives the Republicans a much better chance of making that the story then they had before," Levin said. "

"And that story has the budget debate right in the middle of it. So that's I think what they're trying to achieve with it. And it's pretty smart. It forces the Senate Democrats out of their hiding place. It makes Obama less central to the story, and it makes the House look a little more mature. That's what they need to do if they're trying to keep the House and take the Senate."

Obama, he said, "becomes less relevant."

We shall see. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), for one, certainly doesn't think the fiscal cliff maneuver was sufficient for the GOP.



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