WASHINGTON — Most lawmakers and Capitol Hill staffers concede that they have virtually no chance of finding a solution for looming defense budget cuts before the November elections.
In lieu of trumpeting results or even progress on the issue, Republicans and Democrats are instead working to blame the other party for the yearlong game of budget brinksmanship — and to distance themselves from what all sides describe as a potential disaster for the nation’s military.
It’s unclear which party faces more danger at the polls because of the ongoing failure to avert sequestration — or even if the issue really matters to voters.
Last month, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both prominent national security voices for their party, joined other GOP lawmakers on a multistate town hall tour to speak out against the dangers of deep defense budget cuts. They blame Democrats for standing in the way of a solution, insisting on protecting costly domestic priorities at the expense of military readiness.
Democrats have countered by noting that many of those conservative critics voted for the sequestration plan, and now are refusing to consider increasing taxes or closing tax loopholes to pay for the military budget gap.
When Congress adopted the Budget Control Act last summer, it included the sequestration cuts — more than $1 trillion in budget trims over the next decade, spread evenly between defense and nondefense accounts — as a poison pill designed to force a bipartisan deficit-reduction panel to find alternatives.
That didn’t work, and now the military is facing a potential $500 billion budget cut in January. The fight is just part of the Capitol Hill gridlock that has helped push Congress’ popularity to an all-time low — a 10 percent approval rating, according to Gallup polls conducted in August.
“I guess I’d rather be on the Republican side of this fight than the Democratic one, because I think people are more willing to believe that Democrats might go through with defense cuts than Republicans,” said Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But I don’t think anybody comes out as a winner here.”
On the national scale, he said, the budget fight isn’t likely to resonate with voters focused on larger economic issues, especially since both parties have professed their abhorrence at what sequestration cuts could do to military operations. The Congressional Budget Office has warned that if sequestration occurs, the sudden budget cuts could prompt massive layoffs among Defense Department civilian employees and contractors, which in turn could lead to a new recession.
Pentagon officials have predicted reductions in training for troops headed to Afghanistan, fewer equipment purchases, reductions in military family services and even refusal of some medical appointments for military families.
The White House this week is expected to better outline the impact of those cuts and how they would be applied to military spending accounts. Last month, Congress passed legislation mandating the president release that additional information on the sequestration impact, in an effort to refocus attention on the issue.
Galston said the topic may sway voters in states with large military bases and a large defense industry presence, since the sequestration cuts may threaten jobs. Even then, it’s difficult to say whether lawmakers can gain votes by talking up the potential impact of defense cuts, especially if they voted for the plan last summer.
Pollster John Zogby believes that Democrats may benefit more from the fight — “So far, Republicans have been the ones hurt by these stalemates because it looks like they’re willing to gamble with people’s paychecks,” he said — but he agrees that sequestration isn’t a winning topic for any candidate on the campaign trail this fall.
“It hurts everybody,” he said. “But as long as no one can claim victory, there’s also no reason to deal with it until the election is over.”
Military leaders and defense industry representatives have fought that idea, pressing for resolution before October instead of in the post-election lame-duck Congress.
Several major defense contractors have issued layoff warnings to employees, noting that contracts canceled midyear could cost them their jobs. Others have announced plans to ship out those notices just weeks before the November elections if the issue is still pending.
Last week, the Aerospace Industry Association released a new Harris poll claiming that 80 percent of voters in five election battleground states (Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri) want lawmakers to “find an alternative to sequestration” before the November elections, and 77 percent are following the budget cuts closely.
“We’ve always known that sequestration is bad policy. Now we know it’s bad politics as well,” association president Marion Blakey said in a statement. “Swing state voters now stand alongside a swelling chorus of Americans … saying the same thing: We need action on sequestration, and we need it now.”
So far, that urgency hasn’t worked. Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, said military leaders in particular have been diligent about avoiding the politics of sequestration while still pushing for solutions. Even that hasn’t moved either party closer to compromise.
“I don’t have an explanation of how this makes anyone look good,” she said. “It’s not about who can win. Both parties seem focused on the consequences of appearing to lose.”
Hurlburt said she is still optimistic that the parties can reach a compromise on sequestration alternatives after the election because “they both believe the results will be apocalyptic.”
The election winners and losers won’t change seats until after the sequestration cuts go into effect in January, leaving the same deadlocked lawmakers in place to find a solution before the end of the year, only with new campaign bruises to bring to the conversation.