Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returns to the Capitol after meeting with President Obama and other Republican leaders at the White House on Oct. 11. McConnell is open to replacing sequestration cuts with other items as part of a deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling, a Senate aide confirmed Sunday. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is open to replacing deep defense and domestic sequestration cuts with other items as part of a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
A senior Senate aide signaled McConnell’s openness to sister publication Defense News on Sunday after being asked about numerous media reports that senior Democratic leaders are pressing hard to replace the cuts in last-minute negotiations.
“That’s certainly something that members of both parties have said [they’re] for,” the senior aide said.
Notably, the aide seemed to describe a sequester replacement plan McConnell and other Republicans might get behind: “As long as the replacements are real, not tax hikes, and keep the levels the same.”
Senate Republicans want any debt-ceiling deal to keep federal spending levels for fiscal 2014 at $986 billion, a level also supported by conservative House Republicans. Senate Democratic leaders, to their collective chagrin, have accepted the GOP level.
Sequester replacement is suddenly on the table after a plan pushed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that called for giving the Pentagon and other federal agencies greater flexibility to implement the sequester cuts fizzled on Saturday.
While the aide’s comments suggest a sequester replacement could become a source of agreement as McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., try to steer Washington around a first-ever US debt default, the two sides agreeing on a package of deficit-paring items to replace the twin defense and domestic spending cuts will be difficult.
Democrats and Republicans for years have remained locked in a stalemate over the kinds of other items — such as federal spending cuts, entitlement program reforms and new revenues — that should shape the kind of $1 trillion package to undo the across-the-board cuts that Pentagon brass and congressional hawks claim is “hollowing out” the military and defense industrial base.
Even if McConnell and Reid can cobble together enough of those items to replace sequestration while also raising the debt ceiling that 60 senators could support, it would have to pass muster in the House.
In the lower chamber, conservative Republicans want more deep spending cuts. They say replacing the sequester cuts should be on the table — but top House GOP leaders have made clear any replacement plan must be free of budget gimmicks.
“I’m not going to sign off on [a debt deal] that doesn’t address the deficit,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, House Republican deputy whip, said last week following a closed-door GOP caucus meeting. “That’s a pretty uniform Republican position. It doesn’t have to have everything we want.”
“Neither side likes the sequester cuts,” Cole said. “But those are going to stay in place until we come to a larger deal. Let’s start the negotiation.”
As the two sides continue talks ahead of what Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says would be a Thursday debt default, one longtime Washington budget analyst puts the odds of a deal at “50-50” at best.
“If anything the situation has gotten worse rather than better over the past few days with House Republicans in open warfare against their GOP Senate colleagues,” Stan Collender said in a Sunday morning email. “It appears that House Republicans need to get something out of the box they are in with the government shutdown and debt ceiling, even if it means extracting a pound of political flesh from their own party to do it.
“One of the biggest problem with the current shutdown/debt ceiling situation is that no one has any assurance that the person they’re negotiating with has any authority to agree to anything. The president can’t be sure congressional Democrats will go along with what he might agree to with Republicans, Boehner absolutely knows there is no guarantee that House and Senate Republicans will follow his lead and [McConnell] won’t be followed blindly by Senate Republicans.
“In other words,” Collender said, “even if there were a deal, it not clear who could agree to it.”