Sunday, May 20, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Last year, when Congress pushed the country to the brink of financial calamity over the federal debt ceiling, Sen. Harry Reid crafted a solution that rescued the nation from an emergency — but kicked a long-term fix further down the road.
It also netted him a prime negotiating position in ongoing budget talks as Republicans seek to reverse the defense cuts that they agreed to last year.
The periodic road to a federal budget runs through a typical series of obstacles: House Republicans appropriate bills without much Democratic support, and Senate Democrats kill off most budget proposals originating in the Republican Party.
But this year, the budget process isn’t just being slowed by the difficulties of brokering a deal (which won’t happen until after the election). It’s also being complicated by the need to determine whether each side is dealing with honest brokers.
The problem exists because of something called sequestration: $1.2 trillion in mandatory, across-the-board cuts in the 2013 budget that Congress imposed on itself last year as part of the debt ceiling deal.
A majority of both parties approved the cuts, half of which come down on defense programs, half on domestic programs, with very little being scraped from Medicare and none from Social Security.
In short, the automatic cuts tear more deeply into Republican priorities.
But now, Republicans are calling for a do-over — and pointing an accusing finger at Reid.
In this case, Reid isn’t just the Democrat in charge reminding Republicans they can’t renege on a deal. He’s also the mastermind of the scheme that led to this point — and it is playing out in his favor.
Indeed, much of the interparty frustration gripping the current budget process stems from last year’s deal that broke the deadlock over how to increase the country’s borrowing authority.
For months, congressional leaders trucked back and forth to the White House for wheel-spinning meetings, stuck because of an ingrained difference of political philosophy. Republicans wanted to balance increased borrowing authority with cuts in the budget, and Democrats wanted to strike a balance by raising tax revenue.
With the clock winding down on the government’s financial cushion, Reid proposed an idea: Form a super-committee of expert lawmakers and give them an extra few months to work out a deal with a lurking penalty — automatic cuts if they fail to reach an agreement.
The details of that sequester were the least publicly debated part of the bill that Congress passed as the hours ticked down on the government’s borrowing authority.
There’s little question however, that though crude, the sequestration was heavily weighted in Democrats’ favor. Defense Department cuts, which Republican leaders are trying to undo, have proven almost impossible to get past the GOP in regular negotiations and certainly not without a trade on Social Security and Medicare.
That has put Reid in the driver’s seat as congressional leaders returned to the White House last week to resume negotiations on the federal budget, the debt ceiling — which must be raised by the end of the year — and whether or not the sequester ought to be undone.
“Where is the president’s plan to replace these indiscriminate cuts to our military, which will devastate their ability to keep America secure?” House Speaker John Boehner demanded as he, Reid and minority leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Nancy Pelosi headed in for talks with President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
Answer from Reid? Show me the money.
“Sen. Reid made clear his view that absent a balanced agreement that pairs smart spending cuts with revenue measures asking millionaires to pay their fair share, the debt will be dealt with through the sequester,” Reid’s spokesman Adam Jentleson told reporters.