Silver linings: The new bipartisan embrace of the sequester

Or, how the Right and Left learned to stop worrying and love the fiscal bomb

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his GOP colleagues don't love the sequester but they see it as a way to cut government spending.
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Call it the final stage of Sequester Grief: Acceptance. Or call it making lemonade out of legislative lemons. But with the $1.2 trillion in sequestration cuts scheduled to start kicking in sometime tomorrow, the prevailing public mood of Washington is shifting from mutual recrimination to pointing out the sunny side of indiscriminate belt-tightening once called draconian by both parties. "It's going to happen," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tells The New York Times. "It's not the end of the world."

Republicans were the first to warm up to the sequestration — that was unexpected, since half this year's $85 billion in cuts come from the defense budget, long viewed as a GOP sacred cow. Some Republicans, especially those in states or districts with military bases or big defense contractors, are living up to this expectation, urging their colleagues to do anything to avoid the looming budgetary cleaver. But for the first time since maybe the Eisenhower administration, the GOP fiscal hawks are stronger than the national security hawks.

Sequestration is "a terrible instrument, but it's better than not cutting at all," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) tells Bloomberg. "The country has an advantage if we cut $1.2 trillion out of the next 10 years." What's more, the public appears to join the GOP in its desire to reduce spending, at least in theory. For the GOP, "doing nothing is on their side," former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin tells Bloomberg. "The thing Republicans want is to reduce spending — doing nothing in this case reduces spending." And many conservatives view this as the only way they'll get significant spending cuts out of President Obama.

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Democrats are only now starting to tout the happy side of the sequestration. While Obama has been traveling the country warning of the pain and inconvenience coming down the pike, "some of the most liberal members of Congress see the cuts as a rare opportunity to whittle down Pentagon spending," says Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times. "The poor are already shielded from the worst of the cuts," thanks to Democratic negotiators, and "the biggest hits will fall on members of the Democratic coalition with more political weight who can fend for themselves: Research universities, environmentalists and the like."

Even the federal employees who are facing forced unpaid time off are seeing the silver lining in their looming furloughs, says Billy House in National Journal. "One reason is that Congress has sometimes granted furloughed federal employees back pay for the wages they missed," but even if that doesn't happen this time, it's also true that "spring is near, temperatures are warming, and the Nationals are preparing to defend their National League East crown." Bring it on, says one commenter at Federal Times. "A vacation through a furlough is the best kind possible since I would be legally prohibited from doing anything in an official capacity including checking e-mails. I haven't had such an enjoyable vacation since the advent of cell phones and the Internet."

What isn't so new — or surprising — is that both sides also view the looming cuts as a way to bolster their arguments for why the other party is wrong. "There are Senate Republicans who are finally going to recognize that it's more important to protect jobs and national security spending and important investments than it is to protect tax breaks for special interests and very wealthy people," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) tells Bloomberg.

And Republicans argue that any pain from the budget cuts will ultimately hurt Obama. "It's pretty clear from polling data that the president has the support of more people, but in the long term, I think if there's damage to our national security there could be a real cost to him," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tells Bloomberg. Plus, the economy is expected to contract 0.5 percent if the sequester lasts, according to analysts polled by Bloomberg, and people tend to associate economic health with the president, not Congress.

With the sequestration a fait accompli, at least for a while, both sides are keeping their powder dry for the next big fight: The possible government shutdown after the current spending cycle runs out in late March. And even in a time of hyper-partisan gridlock, there is a perceived advantage in not appearing to cave. Going over the mini-fiscal cliff "helps both parties to a certain extent, because neither side will have had to give in to the other," says former Democratic congressional budget analyst Stan Collender. For Democrats, and Republicans too, there's been "no rush to come up with a sequestration-prevention solution, and even though they weren't looking forward to the spending cuts or the economic impact by any means, they felt that rushing into a deal would be worse in the long term than waiting."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.