With automatic spending cuts totaling $85 billion scheduled to start Friday, Congressional leaders and President Obama continued maneuvering to avoid the political fallout. Melissa Block talks to Tamara Keith about the state of play and has details from a poll that suggests that Americans want to cut the deficit, but only in the abstract.
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now to Capitol Hill and NPR's Tamara Keith, who joins us to talk about what movement, if any, there is in Congress. Hey, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey.
BLOCK: And Mara mentioned there that some Republicans are pushing not to stop the sequester but rather to give the president more flexibility in just how the spending cuts are made. Who supports the idea and is it going anywhere?
KEITH: Well, it's coming from Republican senators all the way up to the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and it was a topic of discussion at the Senate Republican lunch today. But, you know, after that closed-door lunch, members came out and it was pretty clear from what they were saying that Senate Republicans are not unified on this.
Vocally pro-defense Senators like Lindsey Graham said it's no good because the amount of the cuts are as much of the problem as the nature of the cuts. Others worry that this is basically handing power over to the president and that he might cut things they don't want cut. You know, even a senator who supports the idea says it's not going anywhere, it doesn't have a chance in passing. But he likes it because it would put the president on the spot.
BLOCK: We said, Tam, that there are three day to go until the cuts begin. What kind of urgency are you sensing from lawmakers?
KEITH: I think that there is an urgent desire to avoid getting blamed, so there are sequester avoidance bills popping up now like mushrooms around here, but there's no sense that any of them has a shot at becoming law. You know, Democrats are continuing to call for a balanced approach that's a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. They're unified.
But Republicans are - they're not unified. They're working really hard to push the narrative that it was the president's idea, so that if it is really bad, it's his fault. But then in the same breath, many of them are saying that these cuts are insignificant in light of the big debt and deficit problems. So later this week, the Senate is supposed to vote on both the Democratic sequester replacement and a Republican sequester replacement.
We don't know what the Republican bill is going to look like at this point, but it's pretty clear that neither of them is going to reach that 60-vote threshold that's needed in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.
BLOCK: Okay. So that's the Senate side. What about on the House side?
KEITH: Oh, there's a whole lot of nothing happening on the House side. The House isn't scheduled to vote on anything this week related to the sequester, though they did just overwhelmingly vote to create a congressional science and math competition. So, you know, earlier today the House speaker, John Boehner, he repeated this talking point that he's been using a lot recently, though he got really testy today.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We have moved a bill in the House twice. We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something.
KEITH: So, yeah, very testy. But a quick instant fact check here. Those two bills he's talking about are dead bills. The House passed them in the last Congress, and narrowly, with only Republican votes. This Congress, there are now eight fewer Republicans and so it's not even clear that the House could pass a sequester avoidance for a third time.
BLOCK: And I'm sure that that language of Speaker Boehner went over really well in the Senate.
KEITH: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid looked angry when he was talking about it. I mean, for the first time I felt like I can imagine what he looked like when he was a young amateur boxer.
SENATOR HARRY REID: I think he should understand who is sitting on their posterior. We're doing our best here to pass something. The speaker's doing nothing to try to pass anything over there.
KEITH: And that's why everyone believes this is going to happen because, you know, there are really no back channel discussions and what they're saying in front of microphones is ugly.
BLOCK: So what happens at the end of this week if, as everyone expects, these cuts are allowed to take effect?
KEITH: Well, we're all going to wake up on March 2nd and things will look pretty much the same. All of these doom and gloom projections are cumulative and will take time. Agencies have to give their employees 30 days' notice before furloughs kick in. The education cuts are for the next school year, so it won't be felt immediately.
And part of the reason people here on the Hill are resigned to allowing it to happen is they're just not getting a lot of pressure to act from people back home. According to a recent Pew poll, only 25 percent of people are even following it closely.
BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Tamara Keith on Capitol Hill. Tamara, thanks so much.
KEITH: Glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.