The U.S. Capitol building

The U.S. Capitol building (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The federal debt limit extension deal passed by House Republicans last week assures that the federal government will not default on its loans through mid-May. But that might not be good news for Pentagon officials gearing up for the next showdown: sequestration.

Military budget experts say the extension deal could increase the risk that the automatic budget cuts set for March 1 will kick in — at least temporarily.

“It increases the chances of sequestration,” said David Berteau, director of International Security Programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, because with the debt ceiling issue out of the way, the spotlight falls directly on the sequestration debate.

Since the automatic cuts could be undone quickly with legislation needed to avert a government shutdown on March 27, more Democrats and Republicans have been signaling that they would be willing to see sequestration happen said Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University and a former senior White House budget official for national security. Republican lawmakers — including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. — have made recent comments that they expect some form of sequestration to happen.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., said one reason he opposed the recent debt ceiling deal in the House was that the Republicans’ “no budget, no pay” strategy “involves letting sequestration take effect in March, cutting $500 billion from the Department of Defense.” The cuts would come over the next 10 years.

“This is intended to put pressure on the Democrats to reform entitlements,” Bridenstine wrote on his blog, but “using threats to curtail military funding to create a crisis for the purpose of political advantage is an inappropriate policy.”

Congressional observers say the latest move indicates that congressional Republicans were willing to sacrifice the leverage they once wielded with the debt ceiling showdown in the hopes that they will regain it by refocusing on the fight over sequestration.

It’s a strategy that could backfire, said Todd Harrison, a military budget expert with the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments, a Washington think tank.

“It’s interesting that both sides kind of use sequestration as their leverage to get something out of the other side, but the hostage can’t belong to both sides — or it doesn’t work,” he said. “That’s kind of the risk right now. If both sides think it’s giving them leverage and it’s not, it really could go into effect.”

Most agree the debt ceiling deal “puts more pressure on the sequestration debate than before because it takes other issues off the table,” said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the left-leaning National Security Network.

Harrison agreed, adding, “Don’t think that’s good news for DOD.”

In the continuing budget fight, both parties are so well-entrenched in their opposition of other alternatives, such as tax increases or entitlement cuts, it’s possible that sequestration “may be the least common denominator between the two parties,” he said.

“And it may kick in, simply because they can’t find a way for both sides to agree to avoid it.” Twitter: @joycetsaiDC

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