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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The ‘Obamaquester’

The Line: “The president’s sequester.”

The Party: Republican

Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional series called “Party Lines” that will highlight misleading talking points by both parties.

This Republican talking point aims to blame President Obama for more than $1 trillion in automatic, across-the-board cuts in domestic and defense spending that — without action by Congress — are scheduled to take effect on March 1. House Speaker John Boehner, who said on Feb. 12 that “we are only weeks away from the devastating consequences of the president’s sequester,” has been using variations of the line on his website since at least September 2012. He and congressional Republicans recently have taken to using the hashtag #Obamaquester on Twitter to fault the president for the looming cuts. But the reality is that the pending cuts would not be possible had both Democrats and Republicans not supported the legislation that included them.

Here’s the background: In the summer of 2011, when Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on a way to cut spending in exchange for increasing the federal government’s borrowing limit, legislators settled on the Budget Control Act instead. The law capped federal discretionary spending to save almost $1.2 trillion over a 10-year period, but also mandated that a bipartisan, 12-person congressional committee find at least $1.5 trillion in additional cuts. If the committee failed to come up with a plan, another $1.2 trillion in cuts would occur automatically — half from defense spending and half from discretionary spending on domestic programs — through sequestration. The committee failed to reach an agreement, and the automatic cuts will now begin in March if Congress doesn’t stop them.

In his book “The Price of Politics,” veteran journalist Bob Woodward of the Washington Post wrote that it was, in fact, Obama’s then-director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jacob Lew, and White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors who brought the idea of sequestration to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid before it was proposed to Republicans in Congress. That is the source of Republican claims that this is “the president’s sequester.”

But as Woodward wrote in his book, and as he subsequently explained to Politico, neither party wanted the automatic cuts to take effect or thought they would happen. The cuts were included as a mechanism to force members of the bipartisan committee to work out a deal to avoid them.

Politico, Oct. 23, 2012: “No one thought it would happen. The idea was to design something … that was so onerous that no one would ever let it happen. Of course, it did, because they couldn’t reach agreement,” [Woodward] said. “They all believed that the supercommittee was going to come up with a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan, so there would be no sequestration. Of course, the supercommittee failed and so the trigger went off, which has all of these very Draconian cuts.”

The automatic cuts were supposed to take effect in January, but the president and Congress agreed to delay them until March 1 to give themselves more time to work out a deal. Now, as the new deadline for sequestration draws closer, many Republicans blame the president. And though it’s true that the idea of sequestration originated in the White House, there would be no possibility of automatic cuts had members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — not gone along with the idea.

The Budget Control Act passed in the House with 269 votes in favor — 174 from Republicans and 95 from Democrats. And the bill cleared the Senate with 74 “yea” votes, of which 28 were cast by Republicans. In fact, one of those voting in favor, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Feb. 17 that “Republicans deserve blame; I’ll take some blame for it.”

And Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan who voted against the bill, has said that “it’s totally disingenuous” for Republicans who voted in favor of the bill to now blame the president for it. Amash told Buzzfeed: “The debt ceiling deal in 2011 was agreed to by Republicans and Democrats, and regardless of who came up with the sequester, they all voted for it. So, you can’t vote for something and, with a straight face, go blame the other guy for its existence in law.”

— D’Angelo Gore

Below is a list of some Republicans who have faulted the president for the sequester:

Rep. Martha Roby, Feb. 16: My district is home to Fort Rucker, the primary flight training base for Army Aviation. If the president’s sequester takes effect, Fort Rucker would lose 500 students training to be combat aviators and roughly 37,000 hours of aviation training. (Source: Weekly Republican Address)

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Feb. 13: Take the Obama sequester as just one example. The President had a chance last night to offer a thoughtful alternative to his sequester, one that could reduce spending in a smarter way. That is what Republicans have been calling for all along, and it is the kind of thing the House has already voted to do not once but twice. We want to work with him to actually make that happen. )Source: Congressional Record)

Rep. John Boehner, Feb. 12: We are only weeks away from the devastating consequences of the president’s sequester, and he failed to offer the cuts needed to replace it. (Source: Press release)

Rep. Jeff Miller, Feb. 10: The Administration’s sequestration threatens to reduce our military’s readiness and throw our nation into another recession. (Source: Newsletter)

Rep. Howard McKeon, Feb. 8: Today the White House finally broke their silence on the consequences President Obama’s sequester would have on domestic spending. (Source: Press release)

Rep. Peter Roskam, Feb. 5: The sequester is the president’s sequester. (Source: CNBC’s “The Kudlow Report“)