Senators: Unclear Whether ‘Grand Bargain’ Would Undo Sequestration

WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama kicked off a three-day Capitol Hill charm offensive lobbying blitz to prod lawmakers to act on budgetary and other matters, some veteran lawmakers say an eventual fiscal grand bargain might not totally undo sequestration.

The president huddled Tuesday behind closed doors with Senate Democrats, and over the next two days he also will meet with House Republicans and Democrats, as well as Senate Republicans.

Democrats who emerged from the afternoon session, held in the Mansfield Room just off the Senate floor, used words like “upbeat” and “good” and “positive” to describe the session.

Several said the main topic was the federal budget, with Obama urging the caucus to remain united behind a Senate Appropriations Committee-crafted continuing resolution (CR) that the chamber could vote on later this week to keep the Pentagon and other agencies open beyond March 27.

The bill is essentially a mini-omnibus spending measure that includes full Pentagon spending legislation, and the same for several other federal departments. The remaining ones would be funded under a CR that continues to fund them at past levels.

The House plan, meanwhile, contains full Pentagon, military construction and Department of Veterans Affairs spending bills. It is unclear whether the Senate version will pass the House. If it fails in the lower chamber and congressional leaders are unable to cobble together an eleventh-hour deal, the government would shut down later this month.

Senate Armed Services Committee member Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters Obama urged Democrats to remain united as a single voting bloc behind the Senate Democrats’ bill.

“We’re trying to stay united,” McCaskill said, describing the meeting with the president as “good.”

Minutes after Obama left the Capitol, the White House issued a statement urging both chambers to accept the Senate’s version of the governmentwide spending measure.

Democratic senators said the meeting with Obama also touched on the latest effort to hammer out a so-called “grand bargain” fiscal deal.

Some pro-defense lawmakers have said in recent weeks that if such a so-far elusive “big deal” can be reached, they hope it would replace the $500 billion sequestration cut that was triggered March 1 with other deficit-reduction measures.

Several mechanisms have been inserted in bills under consideration on Capitol Hill that are designed to give Pentagon leaders more ability to blunt sequestration’s blow.

For instance, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is touting a provision in the Senate CR that would give Pentagon and other agency leaders greater ability to shift monies among pots of funds within their respective budgets.

Such provisions might make the sequester cuts are manageable, senators said Tuesday.

One is Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.

“I don’t know how this pending [CR] gives greater flexibility to reprogram money. I don’t know exactly how that fits with sequestration,” Levin told reporters. “It may be in appearance only — in other words, you can’t touch sequestration, but you can make up for it in a reprogramming for the other 93 percent of the budget.

“There may be a technical inability to reprogram that sequestered piece,” Levin said. “The reprogramming enhancement may be so sufficient as to make that irrelevant in fact even though it appears to be relevant.”

The Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions, meanwhile, said a grand bargain should undo the sequestration cuts only if such a bill spreads the cuts among a bigger collection of federal agencies.

“The spending level reductions in the sequester can never be erased,” Sessions said. “They just need to be spread out [to more agencies]. Half of the cuts fell on the Defense Department, which only makes up one-sixth of the budget.”


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