CAPITOL HILL: On issues from nuclear weapons to the spending cuts known as sequestration, political common ground has turned into a war-torn no-man’s-land where both sides fear to tread. That intractable divide between the parties was on full display this morning at One Constitution Avenue, across the street from the US Capitol, where Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions expressed Republicans’ deep, wide-ranging, and sometimes outright emotional distrust of President Barrack Obama.
Amidst the bitterness, however, Sessions held out a slender reed of hope for some kind of compromise that would slow sequestration down, if not reduce its 10-year total. Pentagon officials have been pushing for such “backloading” for months, starting with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno in April and with Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey joining in a week and a half ago.
“Will Defense have to take some more reductions? Yes,” he told me after his public remarks at a breakfast at the Capitol Hill headquarters of the influential Reserve Officers’ Association (ROA). But, he went on, “falling this rapidly will have more costs than… a phased-in reduction.” A “dramatic drop” in spending from one year to the next, instead of bringing the budget down on a steady curve over time, leads to inefficient and even counterproductive cuts, he argued.
Does that mean Sessions and his Republican colleagues might agree to backloaded cuts, where the ten-year total still came to $500 billion but the annual figure was below $50 billion in the early years and rose above $50 billion in the second half of the decade?
“Phasing in spending reductions is something that could be discussed and has potential,” Sessions said. Under the current law, “the cut’s pretty arbitrary.”
That doesn’t mean Sessions is full of bonhomie for Barrack Obama. Since the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2014 assumed sequestration would not happen, Sessions said, “Republicans have been very much insisting that the Defense Department will lay out a plan how you would absorb these cuts and they basically haven’t done so, which indicates that the President wants to put maximum pressure to advance his agenda.”
Of course, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives also adopted a budget resolution that assumed a sequester deal, as did the Democratic-controlled Senate, and each sides’ terms for solving the problem are equally unacceptable to the other, making all their “solutions” equally unlikely. Yet both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees wrote up their 2014 policy bills based on these essentially imaginary numbers.
“I’m worried about it,” Sessions told the audience at the breakfast. “It is difficult to justify marking up to a number that is not likely to be the number we’re going to appropriate. I voted for the bill in committee. Secretary Hagel has promised he’s going to submit a report on how he’s going to manage these reductions shortly… but I’m uneasy about it.”
“We’re in a very grim position,” Sessions said.
But he’s hardly eager to get out of it by making concessions to the Democrats. “The only thing they’re demanding is more taxes and they just got $700 billion of more taxes in January!” Sessions told the group, his voice rising with emotion. “Republicans believe that they had an agreement to reduce spending [without] raising taxes,” the 2011 Budget Control Act. “When you eliminate the sequester and replace it with tax increases, you’ve increased spending.”
“Republicans feel like they reached an agreement with the President,” Sessions added to me afterwards. “To back off of the commitment they made to the American people is not feasible.”
Republicans want to cut domestic programs, especially the rapidly growing entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security – that consume, by various counts, 45 to 62 percent of federal spending. But the sequester cuts fall only on discretionary spending, where they are equally divided between domestic and defense.
“One-half of the cuts are falling on one-sixth of the budget,” Sessions told the group. Unless the parties can make a deal, defense spending is going down by 11 percent over the next decade, he said. Democrats will happily hold Republicans responsible, Sessions said wryly: “If you were a diabolical political guru and you were part of the ‘cut defense’ gang, and you could get defense cut and blame it on the Republicans, that would be a winner, wouldn’t it?”
Sessions’s distrust is worth noting because he is hardly a fringe figure, with National Journal rating him as only the 22nd most conservative Senator in 2012. That puts him smack in the middle of the 46 Senate Republicans, more conservative than the former ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services, John McCain (28th), and McCain’s protégé Kelly Ayotte (36th), but more liberal than current SASC ranking member, James Inhofe (14th) or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (15th).
As the senior Republican on SASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee, Sessions is also someone the administration has to deal with on either modernizing or reducing the nuclear arsenal. Sessions argued today that under-investment amounts to a backdoor attack on the nuclear triad – land-based ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines, and bombers – “without ever having to say, well I’ve eliminated this leg or that leg.” He and his fellow Republicans have repeatedly criticized the administration for under-investing in modernization of the nation’s aging nuclear weapons stockpile, reneging on presidential promises made to convince skeptical Republicans to ratify New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) in 2010.
This week, Sessions said he got an official call informing him in advance of the President’s proposal to cut US and Russia nuclear arsenals by an additional one-third. But that hardly allayed the Alabaman’s anxieties. Indeed, while Republicans generally supported George W. Bush’s proposals for steep and sometimes unilateral cuts in the US nuclear arsenal, they see in Obama’s call for still further reductions a slippery slope to total disarmament, aka “global zero” – a goal Obama and Sec. Hagel (as a Senator) have indeed espoused.
The Berlin announcement, Sessions told the group, “causes me concern, and I believe it’s going to cause Congress concern, because fundamentally this is not driven, it seems to me, primarily by a goal of reaching a level that’s safe for America…. It seems to be more driven by an ideological vision of the president of a world without nuclear weapons.”
“A further one-third reduction [would have] destabilizing effects worldwide,” Sessions said, because rogue states and ambitious regional powers would see it as a reduction of US deterrent capabilities to be exploited, not as an example to be followed.
“It’s a theory of the left that we can get rid of nuclear weapons,” Sessions said, noting that Ronald Reagan once dreamed of the same goal. “I wish we could. Don’t we all?”