Republicans Push To Rebrand Automatic Spending Cuts As Deadline Nears

With the deadline approaching for automatic spending cuts, Republicans in Congress are pushing hard to rebrand the cuts that were agreed to as part of the debt-ceiling agreement of 2011. The sequester is now the president's sequester, according to congressional Republicans.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

On March 1st, a big across-the-board spending cuts, known as the sequester, are set to hit almost every corner of federal spending. Many are warning the consequences would be dire.

PETER MCPHERSON: Sequestration is a reckless and a blunt tool that would force deep spending reductions across critical investments in R&D and education.

BLOCK: That was Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, speaking today here in Washington. His is just the latest voice in a growing chorus now calling on Congress to head off the sequester. If lawmakers don't act, there will also be political consequences.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It started back in August in a post on House Speaker John Boehner's website. Instead of calling it the sequester, the post called it the president's sequester. Then last week, the speaker got up on the House floor and gave a three-minute speech, where he called it the president's sequester four times.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Now twice, the House has passed legislation to replace the president's sequester - to replace the president's sequester...

KEITH: What started out as a sort of subtle language shift, by the end of the week became a full on rebranding campaign, complete with its own hashtag: Obamaquester.

Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier today on the Senate floor.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The House passed legislation to avert the Obama's sequester months ago. But Senate Democrats have yet to pass an alternative bill that could actually go to conference.

KEITH: The message: the Republican leadership, at least, doesn't like these automatic spending cuts. And in case you're wondering, the sequester wasn't their idea. To back this up, Boehner and his colleagues cite page 326 of the book "The Price of Politics," by one of America's most well-known journalists.

BOB WOODWARD: I'm Bob Woodward, an associate editor at The Washington Post.

KEITH: Woodward's book examines the fight over the debt ceiling back in the summer of 2011. Republicans said they wouldn't raise the debt limit unless government spending was cut by the amount of the increase. And if a bipartisan effort to find $1.2 trillion in cuts failed, Woodward says high-level White House aides had an idea. It would be so Draconian neither side would let it happen.

On page 326, Woodward describes Jack Lew, then the president's budget director, pitching the idea to the Senate's Democratic leader.

WOODWARD: Jack Lew said we have an idea for a trigger. And Harry Reid, the Democratic leader asked skeptically, what's the idea. And Lew said, sequestration. Reid bent down and put his head between his knees almost as if he was going to throw up or was having a heart attack.

KEITH: The bill ultimately passed the House and the Senate with overwhelming Republican support. John Boehner and the majority of Republicans in Congress voted for it. So yes, says Woodward...

WOODWARD: Well, of course, it's the president's sequester.

KEITH: But...

WOODWARD: Of course, they all went along but we're now in the hole that they all dug for themselves.

KEITH: Beyond the actual origins of the sequester idea, there's a reason Boehner and others in the Republican leadership are pushing hard on this. Many rank-and-file Republicans are perfectly willing to let the sequester go ahead, or at least lock in cuts of the same size. Because of this, if the sequester does happen, Republicans risk getting the blame.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who's backing a bill to replace the cuts this year, says his party deserves the blame.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: We have our fingerprints as Republicans on this proposal, on this sequestration idea. It was the president's idea, according to Bob Woodward's book. But we as the Republican Party agreed to it.

KEITH: He must not have gotten the memo about the hashtag Obamaquester. It's safe to say, though, that if actually happens on March 1st, and if the dire predictions become a reality, there will be plenty of blame to go around.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Correction Feb. 20, 2013

The original headline for this story inaccurately suggested Republicans were primarily responsible for devising the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

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