- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The ink on the final debt and spending agreement hadn’t even dried and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ leader, was already drawing a red line around the next fight: budget sequesters.

The Kentucky Republican acknowledged the deal he had negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wasn’t a particularly good bargain for Republicans, but he said it had one bright spot in that it didn’t break the sequesters — the automatic spending cuts Congress and President Obama agreed to in 2011 that have helped cut overall federal spending the past two years.

“That’s been a top priority for me and my Republican colleagues throughout this debate. And it’s been worth the effort,” Mr. McConnell said. “Preserving this law is critically important.”

For their part, Democrats were also gearing up for the fight, hoping to erase all or most of the sequesters and replace them with tax increases. Republicans will demand that any changes come from other spending cuts.

The battleground will be a House-Senate conference committee charged with hammering out a final 2014 budget. Going to conference is part of the deal Mr. Reid and Mr. McConnell struck.

The lack of a budget is part of the reason the government shut down in the first place. The Senate passed a budget that called for discretionary spending levels $90 billion above the House’s levels, and the two sides began writing their individual spending bills at those different levels.

It soon became clear, however, that neither chamber was going to be able to live up to its budget, and that left the government without any spending bills on Oct. 1, leading to the shutdown.

Now, both sides are already drawing lines.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he will fight any effort to cut social safety-net programs.

“At a time when the middle class in America is disappearing and wealth and income inequality is greater than at any time since the Roaring ‘20s, we must not balance the budget on the backs of the weak and the vulnerable,” he said.

The sequesters loomed over the entire debt and spending fights of the last few weeks.

Indeed, not only does the final deal force a budget conference, but it also ends stopgap spending Jan. 15 — the date the next round of sequesters is set to kick in.

Republicans had wanted a six-month spending bill, which would have locked sequesters in for most of the year, but Democrats proposed a six-week spending bill, hoping to revisit the sequesters as soon as possible.

In the end, they compromised on the January date, which doesn’t lock the sequesters in but brings the government right to the brink.

The GOP is eager to move on to that conversation.

“That’s a fight on our turf — it’s great,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has been one of the chief spending-cutters during his decade in Congress.

He said he thinks Republicans will hold firm on requiring the government to live with the lower spending levels, though he said they are open to allowing cuts to entitlement spending such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to take the place of the discretionary spending sequesters.

The big question is how Republicans will feel about the sequester cuts to defense — an issue that troubles some in both parties.

“Hopefully the Budget Committee can achieve an agreement in conference committee that will avoid that sequester,” Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said on the chamber floor.

Then there’s the chance that the budget conference committee could devolve into the same stalemate that deadlocked the so-called deficit supercommittee in 2011.

Democrats on that committee proposed major tax increases, while Republicans proposed slight tax increases with bigger spending cuts — and neither side showed any give.

“It’s right to be skeptical,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat and member of the Budget Committee. “My hope is people will be chastened by the severe pain caused by the shutdown and the uncertainty of default.”

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