WASHINGTON — Announcing the budget deal he reached with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday he was thankful Republicans were at least able to keep in place the automatic spending cuts that went into effect across government agencies earlier this year.
“That’s been a top priority for me and my Republican colleagues throughout this debate,” the Senate Minority Leader said on the floor of the Senate, referencing what’s known as the sequester. “And it’s been worth the effort.”
But while the deal freezes in place current spending numbers, the budget deal actually blows through the sequester spending caps that were supposed to go into effect on Oct. 1 — by nearly $20 billion.
Here are the numbers: The Budget Control Act of 2011 created the automatic spending cuts across the government, mandating a discretionary budget in fiscal year 2013 of $986 billion.
On Oct. 1, more sequester cuts were supposed to bring the discretionary budget down to $967 billion for fiscal year 2014.
But the amount of the spending cap in the McConnell-Reid deal for the next three months is frozen temporarily at $986 billion — $19 billion more than the government is supposed to be able to spend this fiscal year.
Defenders of McConnell point out that at least his deal stopped Democrats from completely killing these automatic spending cuts. President Barack Obama and Harry Reid want to do away with them and increase the budget to $1.058 trillion.
The freezing of the spending cuts comes as conservative note that the sequester has actually been successful in reducing government. Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore put it this way in August: “The biggest underreported story out of Washington this year is that the federal budget is shrinking and much more than anyone in either party expected.”
Yet the story that has gotten the most of the attention during the recent budget fights has been the unsuccessful conservative fight to defund Obamacare as part of a continuing resolution to keep the government funded.
During that fight, some conservatives questioned the strategy of waging an unwinnable battle on Obamacare instead of what they considered a winnable fight on spending. They say Republicans should have battled to enact the $967 billion caps on Oct. 1 instead.
As the Senate voted on a budget bill at the end of last month, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn referenced this and said he was disappointed lawmakers “once again voted to break its commitment to taxpayers and violate its budget caps.”
“Lost in the back and forth this week regarding whether or not to shut down the government over Obamacare was a real debate about all the other things that this bill will fund,” Coburn said, referencing the sequester.
And in a letter to senators last month, Brandon Arnold, the vice president of government affairs of the National Taxpayer Union, urged lawmakers not to temporarily postpone the sequester cuts.
“Congress should be writing legislation within the bounds of our current reality,” he said. “The [Budget Control Act] was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in an attempt to stop the persistent can-kicking in Washington.”
Arnold added: “Congress should follow the law and pass a [continuing resolution] that adheres to the budget limits at hand. Any attempts to put off tough decisions would make future choices more difficult and increase the ongoing uncertainty plaguing our economy.”
That fight will continue. Congress is expected to debate at the end of the year — when the deal expires – on whether to implement the $967 billion spending cap.
McConnell argued Wednesday during his floor speech that the Budget Control Act has showed “that Washington can cut spending.”
“Because of this law, that’s just what we’ve done,” he said. “For the first time since the Korean War, government spending has declined for two years in a row. That’s the first time in 50 years. And we’re not going back on this agreement.”